DHS and DNR Release Strict PFAS Groundwater Standard

The Department of Health Services (DHS), Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and Department of Trade, Agriculture & Consumer Protection announced last week a recommended groundwater standard of 20 parts per trillion (ppt) combined for PFOA and PFOS. PFOA and PFOS are the most extensively produced and studied of a class of chemicals referred to as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance), which are found in many everyday products, including nonstick pans, cleaning products, paints, and firefighting foam. Existing best available science does not establish adverse health effects to humans from PFOA and PFOS exposure at current levels.

The recommendation of 20 ppt is significantly below the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) health advisory standard of 70 ppt. EPA also recently released a draft interim guideline for groundwater standards of 70 ppt. Wisconsin law requires DHS to use EPA values for health standards if they are available, unless there is scientifically valid technical information that was not considered when the federal value was established (Wis. Stat. § 160.13(2)(b)). However, other studies show little effect on human health from PFOA and PFOS, even at much higher exposure levels than 20 ppt. Out of 19 other states regulating PFAS, only Vermont has set a standard as strict as the one proposed by Wisconsin’s DHS. New Jersey has an interim recommendation of 10 ppt.

Costs imposed on the regulated community by a 20 ppt standard could be significant. With no evidence of adverse human health effects resulting from PFOA and PFOS exposure, a 20 ppt standard would not provide public health protections and instead would impose significant, unnecessary costs on Wisconsin businesses.

The recommendation now must go through the DNR rulemaking process before it is enforceable. DNR Secretary-designee Preston Cole said in a statement that DNR will begin the rulemaking process “immediately.”

DHS also recommends that the preventive action limit for PFOA and PFOS be set at 10 percent of the enforcement standard in accordance with Wis. Stat. § 160.15(1)(c). At 2 ppt, the preventive action limit would be the most strict regulation on PFOA and PFOS in the world. Preventive action limits are initial regulatory limits used to inform DNR about potential groundwater contamination and minimize the level of substances “to the extent technically and economically feasible” to prevent further contamination.

In the legislature, several bills have been introduced related to PFAS regulation. The 2019-21 state budget as passed by the legislature also includes funding for more research on PFAS at DNR.