PFAS may be foreign to many, but residents in Marinette, Wis., are living with the man-made contaminant.
PFAS is short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of thousands of synthetic chemicals that don’t break down in the environment and bio-accumulate. That means they become concentrated inside the bodies of living things, like humans. PFAS are known as "forever" chemicals.
Gov. Tony Evers recently announced that he wants to broaden efforts to regulate PFAS. In the meantime, PFAS contamination rages in Marinette. Some residents there are pushing for state and federal action to solve what they consider an epidemic in their home town and across the nation.
Annie Boyle Davis and her siblings grew up in a rambling 1900s era structure that stands 500 feet from the bay of Green Bay. To her north is downtown Marinette.
Heavy industry was part of the community long before Davis was born. In the 1930s, the company Ansul started manufacturing fire suppression chemicals.
Four decades later, Davis remembers what she smelled and saw in grade and high school.
“When we were little kids, we would say to my mom, ‘Mommy, it smells like Ansul’. It was just this horrible smell and we just called it Ansul. It was probably the way the wind was blowing and what they were making," Davis says.
She says her high school was located adjacent to the Ansul chemical grounds.
"One day we went to school, I want to say that was 1970, and all the foliage around the school – the trees, the leaves, the grass – were dead,” Davis recalls.
Ansul’s ownership shifted over time. Today, Johnson Controls International occupies the building. It runs both a fire suppression foam factory along with a training facility where people learn to properly apply it.
In 2017, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) determined that Johnson Controls’ operations in Marinette have the state’s highest known contamination of these "forever" chemicals.
Doug Oitzinger is a former mayor of Marinette and one of the people pushing for PFAS solutions.
"This is the epicenter of the PFAS crisis that we're suddenly finding is in a lot of places," Oitzinger says.
According to the DNR, contamination has been detected in everything from soil, sediment, ground and surface water. Contamination has also been found in sanitary sewers and biosolids left behind in the Marinette Sanitary Sewer Plant process.
“We don’t know where that plume goes in another five years, another 10 years, another 20 years. It’s not an even concentration – there are places where properties have very high concentration and the property next door to it does not. It’s moving in all directions, but it’s moving most rapidly toward the bay of Green Bay," Oitzinger says.
While PFAS concentrations appears low in the bay, it is the source of the city of Marinettte’s drinking water.
However, private wells have been impacted in the adjacent town of Peshtigo. So far, approximately 40 private wells are known to be contaminated.
The DNR says it’s exploring solutions, and is requiring Johnson Controls to cast a wider sampling net. But Oitzinger says more needs to be done — the public health risks are too great not to.
“They don’t pass through you. They don’t pass through the environment, and they can build up. They can lead to cancer, thyroid issues, young children can have developmental issues. They can cause difficulty for women to even become pregnant and difficulties in their pregnancy,” Oitzinger explains.
Despite those known risks, there are no federal or state regulations to protect people from PFAS. Oitzinger and the local grassroots group calling itself S.O H2O, or Save Our Water, are calling on Wisconsin to act.
“We need enforceable standards — we need them for drinking water, we need them for surface water, we need them for the air we breathe. We don’t have any information about this stuff going into the air,” he says.
Sitting in the home she grew up in, Annie Boyle Davis gazes out toward the shimmering bay. Her mom died of cancer 16 years ago. Two of her siblings are battling it now. Davis’ gut tells her PFAS could be to blame.
On Thursday, Doug Oitzinger and other Save Our Water members will share their views with the Speakers Task Force on Water Quality at a hearing being held in Marinette.
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