Wisconsin DHS advises against watering fruits, vegetables with PFAS-contaminated water

Ap Photos
(Associated Press photo)

TOWN OF CAMPBELL, Wis. (WKBT) — Gardeners in Campbell might be able to water their flowers, lawns and other plants without fear, but they might want to hold off on watering edible plants because of PFAS well contamination, according to a Wisconsin Department of Health Services advisory.
Pfas MapLee Donahue mentioned that advice from the DHS during the Campbell Town Board’s regular Zoom meeting Tuesday evening, as the board was discussing the status of the PFAS contamination affecting more than 550 private wells in the town.

Donahue, the town supervisor whose purview includes health, education and welfare, said the DHS sent an advisory out Monday that  residents of the Town of Peshtigo and City of Marinette whose wells have tested above certain levels of PFAS should not use that water on edible plants.

Donahue said in a phone interview that she asked whether the same advice should apply to Campbell, even though it wasn’t mentioned. Told that the advisory was specific to those municipalities, she said in the interview, “I think the same advice should apply, wither it’s Marinette, Peshtigo or Rhinelander.”

The DHS advisory says, in part that, “based on recommendations for health-based groundwater standards … DHS advises that sources of water with PFAS levels at or above DHS recommended groundwater standards should not be used for watering fruit and vegetable gardens.”

The DHS standard, based on state Department of Natural Resources statistics, is 20 parts per trillion, according to the advisory. That is lower than its previous standard, which had pivoted on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendation that water with more than 70 parts per trillion of PFAs should not be used for fruit and vegetable gardening.

PFAS are manmade compounds — often called forever chemicals because it takes so long to dissipate — that have been linked to infertility, thyroid disease and cancer.
The non-watering advice comes at a tough time for gardeners, considering the heatwave that has been blistering the region and the fact that the meteorological spring rainfall is more than 2.5 inches below normal, according to the National Weather Service.
Most town residents are using bottled water or have signed up for the DNR to pay with Culligan to supply potable water to their homes. Most of the DNR’s payments, also going to several other cities and towns, including Peshtigo and Marinette, grappling with their own PFAS issues, are set to expire in September, Donahue said.
The most recent U.S. Drought Monitor Survey, issued June 1, assessed moisture levels as being abnormally dry to moderate drought conditions in southwest and west-central Wisconsin, southern Minnesota and north-central and northeast Iowa.
In another action, the board voted unanimously to continue the town’s membership in the La Crosse Area Development Corp. through the end of the year but cancel its membership then. Board Chairman Josh Johnson suggested the action, based on his objections to the LADCO board’s hiring of former La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat as its executive director.
Johnson had raised the issue last month, saying he didn’t believe Kabat has Campbell’s best interests at heart, based on friction between the city of La Crosse and the Town of Campbell over the PFAS contamination situation when he was mayor.
The contamination is blamed at least in part on firefighter drills and firefighting at the La Crosse Regional Airport.
The board also decided to begin meeting in person instead of Zoom sessions beginning in July.

The full text of the DHS advisory Donahue received is:

Subject: Fruit and Vegetable Gardens and PFAS: DHS Updates Recommendations for PFAS in Water Used for Gardening in Marinette, Peshtigo and Surrounding Communities

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) has issued updated recommendations regarding the use of water contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) for fruit and vegetable gardening in the city of Marinette, Town of Peshtigo and surrounding communities affected by PFAS contamination.

The updated recommendations take into consideration DHS’s recent Cycle 10 and Cycle 11 groundwater standard recommendations for PFAS.

In 2018, DHS recommended that non-potable private wells with PFOA and PFOS levels at or above the Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water health advisory of 70 parts per trillion should not be used for fruit and vegetable gardening.

Based on recommendations for health-based groundwater standards issued in Cycle 10 and Cycle 11, DHS advises that sources of water with PFAS levels at or above DHS recommended groundwater standards should not be used for watering fruit and vegetable gardens.

Additional information on PFAS contamination in Marinette, Peshtigo, and surrounding communities is available on the DNR’s PFAS Contamination in the Marinette and Peshtigo Area website. Frequently asked questions have also been updated to reflect DHS’s recommendation regarding water and gardening.

PFAS are a group of human-made chemicals used for decades in numerous products, including non-stick cookware, fast food wrappers, stain-resistant sprays and certain types of firefighting foam. These contaminants have made their way into the environment through accidental spills of PFAS-containing materials, discharges of PFAS-containing wastewater to treatment plants and certain types of firefighting foams.

PFAS do not break down easily in the environment and have been discovered at concentrations of concern in groundwater, surface water and drinking water. These chemicals are known to bioaccumulate in the tissues of fish and wildlife and are also known to accumulate in the human body, posing several risks to human health.

Addressing PFAS contamination in the environment is part of Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide initiative to ensure Wisconsinites have access to safe drinking water. In 2019, the governor signed Executive Order #40 to address the issue of PFAS across the state.

The governor’s 2021-23 biennial budget unveiled in February proposes significant resources for the monitoring and testing of PFAS including over $20 million over the next two years for assistance and resources to local communities that are impacted by PFAS contamination, aiding local fire departments in disposing of PFAS foam, and adding additional DNR staff to implement the Wisconsin PFAS Action Council’s action plan.

The DNR has undertaken several measures to mitigate PFAS contamination, including establishing the Wisconsin PFAS Action Council (WisPAC) in 2020 and spearheading the creation of the statewide PFAS Action Plan. The plan includes 25 action items centered around four guiding principles: environmental justice, health equity, innovation, and pollution prevention.

Additional information on PFAS is also available on the Wisconsin DNR website.