MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said Thursday that the state will provide free bottled water to about 4,300 residents of French Island in La Crosse County due to concerns about groundwater pollution from PFAS “forever chemicals” that have been linked to causing cancer and a wide array of other illnesses.
The chemicals were first detected in French Island wells in 2014. The contamination has been traced to several plane crashes at La Crosse Regional Airport, where PFAS- containing firefighting foam was used, as well as routine yearly testing of foam by the airport. The chemicals are believed to have spread into groundwater from near the airport on the northern part of the island to its southern half.
Tests have revealed at least 184 private wells around the airport contain some level of PFAS and of those 61 exceed the state’s PFAS standard for the chemical, said Darsi Foss, administrator of the Department of Natural Resources Division of Environmental Management.
The state Department of Natural Resources said Thursday that it was working with other state agencies to provide bottled water to all residents on the island. The city of La Crosse has been providing bottled water only to residents within an investigation area, even as those outside the area have been requesting bottled water for months.
La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat disregarded state guidance and refused to supply bottled water for all French Island residents who have PFAS contaminants in their wells, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last week based on emails it obtained.
The city of La Crosse is providing bottled water to 54 residents south of the airport, the Department of Natural Resources said. In the Town of Campbell, located on the southern part of French Island, there are about 4,300 residents who rely on nearly 1,200 private wells to supply drinking water.
Under the advisory, any French Island residents who aren’t already getting bottled water from the city can receive it from the Department of Natural Resources. It set up distribution locations and offered delivery options as well.
The cost to provide bottled water will be $200,000 or more, depending on how many people want it and how long the state provides the service, Foss said.
The city of La Crosse earlier this month filed a lawsuit against dozens of chemical manufacturers alleging they’ve known since the 1960s that the foam would pollute the area’s groundwater but continued to manufacture and sell it without warning customers, jeopardizing public health.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, don’t easily break down in the environment and have been used for decades in a range of products, including stain-resistant sprays. They have been detected in humans, wildlife, fish and in the groundwater, surface water, soil and air. They have also been found in more than 40 rural and urban areas across the state, including in Marinette, Superior, Madison and Milwaukee.
The chemicals, which largely enter the human body through drinking water, have been linked to a wide range of health ailments, including kidney and testicular cancers, high blood pressure, harm to the immune and reproductive systems, lower birth weights and altered hormones.
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