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First monthly PFAS test at Well 15

The Madison Water Utility began a program this month of monthly testing at Well 15 on East Washington Avenue, which has been contaminated by PFAS.

Q: How do PFAS affect health?

A: PFAS have been found in some Madison water wells, sparking concerns about health that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says are not fully understood but linked to many negative impacts.

PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are man-made chemicals that have been used in industrial and commercial products since the 1950s in things such as nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics and carpeting, and some firefighting foam, according to the CDC.

PFAS were found in two Madison water wells, with the chemicals coming from the heavily contaminated Truax Air National Guard Base on the city’s North Side. Levels of two types of PFAS have been below the federal health advisory. Other types of PFAS, which do not have set advisory levels, have also been found in the wells. The Water Utility Board said it will seek stronger protections, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it will be reviewing its guidelines.

The U.S. no longer manufactures two of the most common PFAS.

Some studies have shown PFAS exposure can:

  • Increase cancer risk.
  • Reduce a woman’s fertility.
  • Interfere with natural hormones.
  • Affect growth, learning and behavior of infants and children.
  • Affect the immune system.
  • Increase cholesterol levels.

The CDC noted that more research is needed to fully identify impacts of PFAS exposure.

People can be exposed to PFAS through contaminated drinking water, eating fish caught from contaminated waters, eating food packaged in materials containing PFAS and using some consumer products with PFAS.

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The CDC said exposure from modern consumer products is usually low, particularly compared to exposure from contaminated drinking water. Workers making or processing materials containing PFAS have a higher risk of exposure.

Only a small amount of PFAS can be absorbed through skin contact, but ingesting or inhaling the chemicals leads to higher absorption, the CDC said.

— Shelley K. Mesch

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Shelley K. Mesch is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She earned a degree in journalism from DePaul University.