Read the full article by Laura Schulte (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

“Wisconsin has been grappling with a growing number of cases of ‘forever’ chemicals contaminating water across the state. 

But what exactly are the chemicals, also called PFAS, and why are they so harmful to people?

The topic is difficult and somewhat scientific, but we created a guide, of sorts, to help with understanding PFAS, their effect and what’s being done to handle the chemicals. 

Here are some common facts about the chemicals: 

What are PFAS, exactly? 

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of man-made chemicals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. They’ve been used and manufactured in the U.S. since the 1940s. 

The chemicals are persistent, remaining both in the environment and the human body and not breaking down over time, EPA information shows, hence their nickname of “forever” chemicals. It has been shown that PFAS can cause cancer and other adverse effects if they collect in the human body.   

The chemicals are used for their water- and stain-resistant qualities, in products like clothing and carpet, nonstick cookware, packaging and firefighting foam, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Where are they found? 

Humans can come into contact with PFAS in many different ways in their everyday life, according to the EPA. Some of the most common sources of the chemicals are from food.

If food is grown in soil containing PFAS, or water containing PFAS is used to raise a crop, it is absorbed by the plant and then consumed by humans. PFAS are also common in many different forms of food wrapping, especially fast-food wrappers. The chemicals can also be found in animals that have consumed water or food containing PFAS. 

The chemicals are also used in commercial household products, such as polishes, waxes, paints and more.  

PFAS are also largely found in drinking water supplies, typically in areas near manufacturing plants that use the chemicals in production, landfills, wastewater treatment plants and firefighter training facilities, according to the EPA. An indication that PFAS are present in a water system is often the presence of foam on top of the water. 

RELATED: Pollution cases involving ‘forever’ chemicals are growing across Wisconsin

Why are they such a big problem? 

Most people in the U.S. have been exposed to PFAS in their lifetime, according to the EPA. Because they accumulate in the human body over long periods of time, there really is no way to get rid of them. Studies have also shown that the chemicals have been linked to reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney and immunological effects in laboratory animals, and have caused tumors and increased cholesterol levels. 

Limited findings show that PFAS are also related to low infant birth weights, effects on the immune system, cancer and thyroid hormone disruption, according to the EPA

It is also very hard to remove the chemicals from the environment, according to the Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council. 

What’s being done about them? 

PFAS are no longer manufactured in the U.S., according to the EPA, but they are still produced internationally and imported to the U.S. in products like leather, textiles, apparel, paper and packaging, rubber and plastics. 

In Wisconsin, the DNR is keeping a close eye on areas known to have high levels of PFAS in the water and soil, and making sure that companies are doing remediation and providing drinking water to residents if needed, like in Marinette and Peshtigo. 

RELATED: Johnson Controls provides drinking water to more homes with wells impacted by ‘forever’ chemicals

The DNR has also recommended a standard of 20 parts per trillion, which is the highest level of the chemicals allowed in any well, before a company must provide drinking water to residents. The DNR’s standard is more stringent than the EPA, which advises a limit standard of 70 parts per trillion…”