PFAS foam confirmed in Madison-area creek

    Marines fighting fires with foam
    Marines fighting fires with foam, a product that uses PFAS (Photo: Lance Cpl. Shawn Valosin/U.S. Marine Corps

    The official test results are back, says the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and they confirm that the foam collected along Starkweather Creek, near Olbrich Boat Launch contains that PFAS (per- and polyfluroalkyl substances). The agency first noticed the foam along the Madison creek in late October, and deployed contractors to collect and remove the substance from the water.

    The results conclusively show what the DNR suspected, that several compounds including PFAS, PFOA, and PFOS substances, along with bacteria, were in the foam and water. As a result, both the DNR and the Department of Health Services (DHS) are recommending that people avoid all contact with the foam on waterways.

    “According to health officials,” reads a DNR press release, “swallowing foam with PFAS could be a risk to your health, and it’s always best to rinse off after contact with foam. DHS also recommends that people not allow their pets to come into contact with or swallow foam, and that pets also rinse off with fresh water.”

    This marks the first time that such foam has been found and confirmed in Starkweather Creek or Lake Monona. It’s important to note, states the DNR, that not all foam found on the surface of lakes and streams contain PFAS compounds, or other substances. Oftentimes, the shaving cream-like substances can build up due to decaying plant or algal material.

    Concern over PFAS chemical contamination in Wisconsin grew steadily louder as 2019 drew to a close. Gov. Tony Evers declared 2019 as the year of clean drinking water, drawing state attention to the issue. In late December, Attorney General Josh Kaul attended a two hour public meeting in Marinette, where contamination has been particularly bad, on the compounds.

    Residents of Marinette, Peshtigo and other surrounding areas voiced their outrage at locally based Johnson Controls, and its predecessor Tyco Industries, for their role in producing the contamination. Several shared encounters with thyroid cancers, as well as other forms of cancers. One woman recounted losing two beagles, which both died with abdominal tumors.

    Experts have associated PFAS compounds with thyroid disease, low birth weights, cancer and immune system issues. Links to human disease and the compounds are still being researched, however. Bills have been introduced recently by State Rep. John Nygren (R- Marinette) and others in response to the growing public concern. Nygrens bill, AB-323, bans the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals, except in emergency operations or for testing. The CLEAR Act, SB-302, introduced by Democratic state senators Mark Miller (D-Madison) and Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) address the issue more broadly, but the more narrow Nygren bill is the one moving forward.

    “PFAS contamination of groundwater is a serious issue in northeastern Wisconsin and a growing problem in other areas of the state,” Nygren said in a statement. “A large portion of this contamination traces back to the use of firefighting foam and therefore this bill is a strong step toward preventing future issues.”

    In August, Gov. Tony Evers called on the Natural Resources Board to address PFAS contamination and reshape rules around the chemicals. “I am committed to protecting our state’s natural resources and ensuring every Wisconsinite has access to clean drinking water,” said Evers. “In the Year of Clean Drinking Water, I’m proud that my cabinet is working with communities, citizens, and businesses to address PFAS contamination across our state.”

    Isiah Holmes
    Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, and other outlets.