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Environmental and Health Impacts of PFAS

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a large group of human-made chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products worldwide since the 1950s.

PFAS do not occur naturally and are widespread in the environment. They are found in people, wildlife and fish all over the world. Some PFAS can stay in peoples' bodies a long time and do not break down easily in the environment.

In 2016, the U.S. EPA established cumulative-lifetime health advisories for PFOA and PFOS [exit DNR], which are two PFAS that have been most widely produced and studied, at 70 parts per trillion (ppt). At the request of the DNR and in accordance with the state's groundwater law, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) [exit DNR] reviewed scientific literature and, in the spring of 2019, recommended groundwater enforcement standards of 20 ppt for PFOA and PFOS individually and combined.

Environmental Impacts

Conceptual site model for how PFAS may enter the environment from one source (firefighting foam applications).
Conceptual site model for how PFAS may enter the environment from one source (firefighting foam applications). Source: ITRC

Drinking water and wells

According to public health experts, people can come into contact with PFAS by eating food, like fish, drinking water and breathing air that contains PFAS. Most non-worker exposures occur through eating food that contains PFAS or drinking contaminated water (please see the 'Health Impacts' tab for more information).

At the request of the DNR in spring of 2019, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) [exit DNR] is reviewing scientific literature to determine if there is sufficient toxicological information to recommend a groundwater quality standard for other PFAS compounds found in Wisconsin.

Results of Madison Wells 15 and 16 pilot study

The DNR hired an environmental consulting firm in April 2019 to inventory current and former industrial and commercial activities to help determine potential sources of PFAS affecting Well 16, which provides water to part of Madison's west side, and Well 15, which helps serve the city's northeast side. Wells 15 and 16 were chosen for this pilot study because voluntary sampling events that occurred in late 2018 by the Madison water utility confirmed that the wells are affected by PFAS. The study showed that, in addition to known PFAS sources, there may be additional sources around Wells 15 and 16 that require further evaluation.

Soil

In Wisconsin, persons who own properties that are the source of PFAS contamination, or who are responsible for discharges of PFAS to the environment, are responsible for taking appropriate actions.

PFAS in soil may pose a direct contact risk to humans or result in chemicals entering the groundwater and surface water. The DNR's Remediation and Redevelopment (RR) Program maintains a web-based spreadsheet with soil residual contaminant levels (RCLs) that were calculated using U.S. EPA's regional screening level (RSL) web calculator, and following the procedures in NR 720.12, for determining soil direct-contact RCLs protective of human health.

Air

PFAS can be emitted into the air as vapors or fine particles. PFAS then travels in the atmosphere through adhesion to particulate matter. PFAS compounds, with the exception of ammonium perfluorooctanoate, are not currently regulated as hazardous air pollutants in Wisconsin.

There are currently no federal (U.S. EPA) approved sampling methods for PFAS compounds in ambient air. Furthermore, health benchmarks that estimate safe exposure levels are available for only a few of the many PFAS compounds that are present in the environment. The lack of test methods and emissions data from potential sources of PFAS compounds makes further study in Wisconsin necessary.

For more information on air quality in Wisconsin, see the air quality monitoring page and the air pollutants and standards page.

Fish and wildlife

PFAS accumulation in wildlife is an emerging area of interest and little is known about the possible effects of PFAS accumulation in wild animals and fish. PFAS is known to accumulate in exposed animals. In other examples of environmental chemicals that accumulate in the food chain, fish are a known and important source of exposure to humans. Studies of the association between fish consumption and PFAS accumulation in humans provide evidence that fish are an important exposure source with this class of chemicals as well. Read more about fish consumption and PFAS in the health impacts tab.

Some PFAS would be expected in samples from any wild animal. The DNR does not have a way to predict how much PFAS might be in any wild animal based solely upon PFAS in the environment. In other examples of chemicals that accumulate in the food chain, the highest source of exposure for people tends to be fish.

Health Impacts

Exposure routes and health impacts

PFAS contamination may be in food, drinking water, indoor dust, some consumer products and workplaces.

In EPA's health advisory documents for PFOS and PFOA, EPA reviewed the research pertaining to the sources of PFAS exposure. They concluded that diet is the major contributor of exposure to PFAS compounds, with drinking water and/or dust being additional exposure sources.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) [exit DNR] has additional information on PFAS, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [exit DNR] and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry [exit DNR] also provide additional health information on PFAS, including PFAS investigation and remediation efforts by other states.

Fish consumption and PFAS

Fishing is an important part of life in Wisconsin and eating fish that you catch can be part of a healthy, balanced diet. Fish are generally high in protein, contain vitamins and minerals and are the primary food source for healthy omega-3 fats.

However, fish may take in pollutants from their environment and their food. In Wisconsin, the DNR regularly tests fish to determine if they contain pollutants and special fish consumption advice is issued for waterbodies where higher levels of pollutants are measured.

For most of Wisconsin's 10,000+ waterbodies, the general statewide fish consumption advisory [PDF] should be followed. For the 146 waterbodies where increased levels of pollutants have been measured, special fish consumption advice should be followed.

In Wisconsin, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are the pollutants upon which most special fish consumption is based. At some sites, though, elevated levels of other pollutants, including dioxins and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), a type of PFAS, are the basis for special fish consumption advice.

Fish consumption FAQ

Where has DNR sampled fish to see if they contain PFAS?

The DNR has tested fish for PFAS (including PFOS and PFOA) in a number of Wisconsin waters. The map and table below include locations that have been tested since 2006. Efforts are underway to test fish from more locations and to revisit previous locations in order to re-test fish.

Map of Wisconsin waterbodies sampled for PFAS since 2006.

Map of Wisconsin waterbodies sampled for PFAS since 2006

Waterbody Status
Fox River, DePere to Green Bay Previously sampled, PFOS-based advice not issued
Green Bay Previously sampled, PFOS-based advice not issued
Lake Michigan Previously sampled, PFOS-based advice not issued
Lake Monona Current PFOS-based advice
Lake Superior Previously sampled, PFOS-based advice not issued
Lake Winnebago Previously sampled, PFOS-based advice not issued
Manitowoc River, Hayton Millpond Previously sampled, PFOS-based advice not issued
Manitowoc River, Jordan Creek Previously sampled, PFOS-based advice not issued
Menominee River, Chalk Hills Flowage Previously sampled, PFOS-based advice not issued
Menominee River, Grand Rapids Flowage Previously sampled, PFOS-based advice not issued
Milwaukee River Estuary Previously sampled, PFOS-based advice not issued
Milwaukee River, Grafton to Estabrook Falls Previously sampled, PFOS-based advice not issued
Mississippi River, Pools 3-6 Current PFOS-based advice
Mississippi River, Pool 8 Previously sampled, no results yet
Peshtigo River, High Falls Flowage Previously sampled, PFOS-based advice not issued
St. Louis River Previously sampled, PFOS-based advice not issued
Starkweather Creek Current PFOS-based advice
Warner Park Lagoons Previously sampled, PFOS-based advice not issued
Wisconsin River, below Rhinelander Previously sampled, no results yet
Wisconsin River, Rhinelander to Petenwell Previously sampled, no results yet
Wisconsin River, Petenwell Flowage Previously sampled, no results yet
Wisconsin River, Prairie du Sac to Mississippi River Previously sampled, PFOS-based advice not issued
Can I eat fish that contain PFAS?

If you follow fish consumption advisories, you can get the health benefits from eating fish while reducing your risk from contaminants. Before going fishing, use the Choose Wisely guide [PDF] to determine if your fishing spot has special advice and then follow the consumption advice appropriate for the species and length of fish you’d like to eat. You can also search for advice for any waterbody in the state using the online Find Advice tool.

What waterbodies have fish consumption advisories for PFAS?

In Pools 3–6 of the Mississippi River, consumption advisories for some species are based on levels of PFOS found in fish tissue.

Recent sampling by the DNR shows elevated PFAS in fish tissue and surface water in Starkweather Creek and Lake Monona. In response to this finding, a consumption advisory was developed for these waters and the Wis. Department of Health Services (DHS) sent a letter to the DNR that assesses the health risks of PFAS in the area.

Although fish from some other waters also contain PFAS, in these locations the consumption advice that is issued to protect against the risks from consuming PCBs is more stringent than what would be issued based on PFAS alone. This means that if you follow fish consumption advisories, you can get the health benefits from eating fish while reducing your risk from contaminants, including PFAS.

Resources

Wisconsin Resources

To view PFAS sites involving the DNR, please go to the DNR's Remediation and Redevelopment Program database (BRRTS on the Web). To find sites with PFAS contamination in the database, please go to the "Advanced Search" tab, and under "Substances" search for "PFAS."

The Wisconsin Dept. of Health Services has health-related information about Per- and Polyfluroalkyl Substances (PFAS) [exit DNR].

Additional Resources