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Michelle Phillips

Many years ago, when I began taking journalism classes at a community college, I was tasked with writing a paper about a timely topic. The assignment included writing an investigative news story and then explaining the process you went through in attaining information, interviewing, organizing, etc. 

The topic I chose for this assignment was Lake Erie recovering from being declared a dead lake in the 1960s due to decades of pollutants being tossed in the water. It was once thought that you could throw anything into the Great Lakes and it would just magically disappear–not unlike a magician’s rabbit. Of course, humans learned the hard way that this was not the case, and many of the contaminants have and will linger for years to come.

One of the things I distinctly remember was photos that I dug up the old fashioned way, by physically going to the college library. They were quite impactful showing chemical slicks, trash and appliances and most disturbing of all some deformed catfish taken before it was declared dead. Now, when I say deformed, I am talking an eyeball misplaced on the top of the head (bringing to mind the three-eyed fish on “The Simpsons”), disfigured mouths and lesions peppering their bodies.

The second piece of the story that I recall is explaining bioaccumulation because many people do not know what it is. In a nutshell, bioaccumulation is the concentration of a substance in a larger fish or animal due to contamination through the food chain. With fish is may start with sediment or water filtered by a small mussel or shellfish consumed by a small fish, eaten by a bigger fish, and so on. Bioaccumulation was an important factor in the death of Lake Erie’s fish.

Once the EPA was formed, dumping stopped and clean-up began. Lake Erie and other bodies of water around the country began to recover. Since that time, however, regulations have been lifted and laws watered down, so to speak, or sometimes just ignored. 

Now we are seeing a similar outcome in regard to PFAS. PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been present in many forms over the past several decades, and are commonly used in Teflon, household products, firefighting chemicals and food packaging. In fact, PFAS are in about 5,000 man-made chemicals.

It comes as little surprise that with all of these applications, PFAS have made their way into our waterways, and drinking water. 

PFAS can bioaccumulate in organisms, and in humans that build up over time can cause some pretty serious health concerns. One of the most consistent findings in humans is an increase in cholesterol levels, and to a lesser degree low infants birth weights, compromised immune system, cancer and thyroid hormone disruption. In lab animals it is also known to cause liver and kidney damage and developmental concerns.

PFAS have been on my radar for at least the last 10 years, and I have written about them before for other publications. The reason I am bringing them up now is because a week or so ago, I received a press release about brown and brook trout that had high PFAS levels in Silver Creek, located in Monroe County. The Wisconsin DNR (Department of Natural Resources), who sent the release, was recommending eating only one trout from the creek per month. 

In addition, in January, I got a similar release about contaminated smelt in Lake Superior. This release also asked that people consume only one meal of smelt per month. Samples of larger fish in Lake Superior and the St. Louis River, one of its tributaries, did not test at levels high enough to warrant warning, but since smelt are small, and certainly a delicious meal for larger fish, it’s only a matter of time. 

As for drinking water, PFAS are often present due to the water supply being located next to an oil refinery, factory, military base or airport, where PFAs are used in firefighting foam, or in the case of the former, industrial use. There have been hundreds of reports of PFAS in drinking water as well as soil. Fortunately, PFAS can (mostly, 99.5 percent) be removed from water through filtration and eliminated through electrochemical treatment, which uses electrons to change the chemical compound to a less dangerous compound.

In December, Gov. Tony Evers’ office released a 25-point action plan, that included input from over 20 state organizations, with the DNR at the helm. Some of the recommendations included:

• Establishing science-based PFAS standards for soil, groundwater and other environments.

• Reducing the use of PFAS through better education, new laws and grants.

• Identifying PFAS discharge locations, facilitating more timely collection of samples and developing sampling protocols for public water systems.

• Partnering with the firefighting community to minimize the use of foam containing PFAS chemicals.

• Engaging more with the public and including environmental justice and health equity in public management efforts.

• Developing new ways to identify PFAS contamination and streamlining ways to deliver safe drinking water to communities affected by PFAS pollution.

• Supporting veterans, their families and those who live near military sites who may have a higher risk of exposure to PFAS.

For now, all we can do is wait for the warnings, don’t eat the fish and hope that the state will implement a plan to remove and prevent PFAS, and hopefully other harmful contaminants, from our environment before it has a chance to bioaccumulate in us causing health concerns and possibly deformities. Let’s hope it comes soon.

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