Opinion | PFAS threatens our communities. We have a chance to stop it

As the Wisconsin DNR finalizes its standards on forever chemicals, public input is welcome Jan. 6-11

By Casey Hicks

Firefighters combat a test fire with foam. while extinguishing the fire with special fire extinguishing equipment with foam. For decades, PFAS have been used in industrial applications such as firefighting foam. Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Conservation Voters

In 2019 I met Kayla Furton at a furniture store in Marinette. She told me about the emerging public health crisis in her hometown, Peshtigo, that occurred as a result of a little-known class of chemicals known as PFAS.

When Kayla moved back to Peshtigo, she was excited to return home and raise her children in the house she grew up in.

“We were excited to be close to family, part of the caring, hard-working community we grew up with, and to raise our children surrounded by natural beauty – and plenty of room to explore the outdoors,” Kayla said to me. “What we didn’t know was that we were moving our kids into the middle of a massive PFAS plume of contamination.”

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are toxic to humans and have been linked to cancer, liver damage, decreased infant birth weights, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease. PFAS are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they bioaccumulate in the human body, can take decades for the body to break down, and can last hundreds of years in the environment.

Kayla’s family home—like approximately two-thirds of Wisconsin homes—draws its water from the ground. And, like an increasing number of families across Wisconsin, she discovered the groundwater well they drew their drinking water from was polluted.

Over 5,000 different kinds of PFAS have been used for all sorts of applications because of their resistance to water, heat, dust and oil. For decades, PFAS have been used in industrial applications such as firefighting foam. PFAS are in consumer products such as carpeting, waterproof clothing, upholstery, food packaging and non-stick teflon pans. 

In Peshtigo, the contamination stems from the use of firefighting foam at the Tyco Fire Products’ fire training facility, owned by Johnson Controls in nearby Marinette. The company discovered that its groundwater had been contaminated with PFAS from firefighting foam in 2013, but didn’t publicly disclose the health risks until 2017.

Since then, we’ve discovered over 80 other contamination sites throughout the state. This is an immediate public health crisis, yet there are no state or federal standards in place for controlling PFAS pollution. Fortunately, we have an opportunity to change that.

On Jan. 6 at 1 pm, the Department of Natural Resources will host a public hearing to receive testimony from Wisconsinites on protecting groundwater (NR140). You can testify at the hearing in favor of protecting two-thirds of Wisconsinites from PFAS in groundwater. Ask the DNR to approve this rule and ensure that every Wisconsinite has the basic human right to safe drinking water.

The proposed changes can be found here and comments can be emailed to DNR140GroundwaterQualityStandards@Wisconsin.gov through Jan. 11.


Casey Hicks is a Green Bay resident and the organizing director of Wisconsin Conservation Voters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization engaging voters to protect Wisconsin’s environment.

The views and opinions expressed by weekly columnists, illustrators and community members submitting letters to the editor are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of Green Bay City Pages, its advertising partners or its parent company Multimedia Channels. Editorials are clearly labeled and represent the views of the Editor who wrote the column. To submit feedback, a letter to the editor, pitch an idea for a recurring column or voice a concern, email Green Bay City Page Editor John McCracken at jmccracken@mmclocal.com.

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