Something in the Water: A Podcast on PFAS in Wisconsin

Two bottles and water testing equipment sit in shallow water.

In 2024, the FDA announced the banning of several types of PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” and the EPA issued the first-ever national, legally enforceable drinking water standard to protect people from PFAS exposure. Community members have long been speaking out against PFAS and fighting for regional of state-wide standards. We’re re-releasing the first episode of the Public Trust podcast produced by Midwest Environmental Advocates and Wisconsin Sea Grant. The podcast looks into the problem of PFAS in Wisconsin, and the episode we are sharing takes listeners to the small town of Campbell on French Island, Wisconsin and tells the story of how local drinking water was contaminated. You will also meet local residents who reveal how the crisis has changed their lives.

Stream or download the episode here.

Episode Highlights

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Richelle Wilson: This season on Public Trust, we look at what happens when tap water is contaminated with PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as “forever chemicals.” My name is Richelle Wilson, and I’m a research fellow at Midwest Environmental Advocates. I’ll be your guide as we visit communities impacted by PFAS contamination to understand how Wisconsinites have been affected by PFAS pollution and what state and local officials are doing about it. First up, French Island.

French Island is near La Crosse and western Wisconsin. It’s a literal island in the Mississippi River between Wisconsin and Minnesota. My co-producer Bonnie [Willison] and I made the drive up from Madison on a beautiful sunny morning. Our first order of business was to meet up with Lee Donahue, who graciously agreed to host us for the day and give us a tour of the neighborhood. We could almost see the water from her front yard.

Lee Donahue: We have what we call “kayak Jenga” in my garage, so it’s the canoe and then kayak, kayak, kayak, kayak, kayak. [laughing]

RW: That’s Lee Donahue. Before settling on the island, she traveled around the world as a military journalist where she met her husband Tim. Now she’s on the town board for the small town of Campbell.

LD: We bought the house in 2004 when we were still in the army, so we’ve lived here about eighteen years. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

RW: Lee and Tim raised one of their kids here. Lee says a lot of people move or return to French Island to raise their families because of what a special place it is. Her neighbor up the block, Peter Davison, is one of those people.

A large lake surrounded by green trees and plants
French Island is surrounded by waterways connected to the Mississippi River, including Lake Onalaska. Photo by Rochelle Hartman, 2007.

Peter Davison: I actually grew up in this house. My family moved here in 1990 when I was four years old, and my parents have lived here up until 2018 when me and my wife moved into the house now. Growing up as a kid, I always wanted to have a family. And I just loved my childhood growing up in this area and getting to be in the woods on the water, doing all the things that I did as a kid. I thought, man, if I could give that same life to my kids in the future, how amazing that would be.

RW: That dream started to become reality. When Peter and his wife found out they were expecting twins, just a couple of years after moving back to French Island.

PD: My kids were born prematurely, ten weeks early in the beginning of 2020. So that was like a blur—that whole time. But it was sometime right in there that we we found out that like hey, you know, stop drinking your tap water and be really concerned about what was going on.

Peter’s newborns are now three years old, and his family still cannot use any tap water.

We first heard about PFAS, and I didn’t even know what that was. And then I remember the first thing being like, oh, it’s Teflon pans. People told me for a long time, “Don’t use a metal utensil on a Teflon pan because you don’t want to eat [PFAS].” I was like, okay. Then you start to Google more and more, and you read more and more about PFAS and what happens when you consume too much of it. Then you start learning about other communities who have dealt with the same problem. So this isn’t a new phenomenon. We’re certainly not the first people to be dealing with this. But yeah, a lot of that information you have to get on your own.

RW: PFAS. It’s an acronym we’ll be hearing a lot in these episodes. I spoke to Dr. Rashmi Joglekar, a toxicology and environmental health scientist currently at the University of California, San Francisco to break down the basics.

Rashmi Joglekar: The acronym stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These are chemicals that really have been around for decades. They were first developed by the chemical conglomerate DuPont as early as the 1940s. These chemicals also share a characteristic of having a carbon fluorine bond—and this is getting a little bit technical—which is one of the strongest bonds in chemistry, because they’re virtually indestructible.

Once these chemicals are released in the environment, they stay there. They stay there for decades. Some studies have found that these chemicals can last for thousands of years in the environment.

PFAs can be found in consumer products in the home. They’re found in building materials. They’re found in plastics. And because of their presence of plastics, you’ll see them in food packaging and in personal care products (makeup, fragrances, body products, mascaras). Because of their manufacturing, their use, and the disposal of these products, they’ve ended up as widespread environmental contaminants.

RW: The groundwater contamination that French Island is dealing with isn’t from household products. It’s from firefighting foam that was used at the La Crosse Regional Airport, which is located on French Island. Industrial foams like this are made from PFAS chemicals.

Three firefighters dressed in white are spraying firefighting foam from hoses.
PFAS is a constituent of most firefighting foams. Photo by New York National Guard, 2015.

LD: The airport is roughly like a big fingers stuck into the island. Back in 1970, there was a plane crash that was right off of airport property. And we know for a fact that an AFFF firefighting foam was used at that crash. Then in 2001, there was another crash of a small plane, and all of that that is either happened on the tarmac or just slightly off the tarmac has leached down through the soil into the groundwater table of that upper aquifer. And that’s why all of us are under a Department of Health Advisory not to drink our water, not to use our water for anything other than flushing the toilet and taking a shower.

RW: Unfortunately, PFAS are not harmless chemicals. There’s a growing body of research showing that PFAS are a danger to human health. Here’s Rashmi Joglekar again.

RJ: What we know from the science so far is that these chemicals are highly toxic. Many of them are linked to immunotoxicity—harm to the immune system. Several of these chemicals had been found to suppress the antibody response following vaccination in children. We’ve also seen through epidemiological studies that exposure to PFAS is correlated with an increased rate of fatty liver disease in children, which is now affecting up to one in ten kids. These chemicals are also linked to certain cancers: kidney cancer, testicular cancer. They’re also linked to thyroid disruption and then developmental harm. You see low birth weight and other harms to the developing fetus if exposure happens during pregnancy. So really a long, exhaustive, really serious list of health effects.

RW: Since 2019, Wisconsin has been working to establish statewide standards for PFAS in water sources. Water Policy in Wisconsin can get a little tricky, so we asked Tony Wilkin Gibart, Executive Director of Midwest environmental advocates, to break it down for us.

Tony Wilkin Gibart: When we talk about a contaminant being regulated, it generally means that the agencies in charge of administering and enforcing environmental laws identify a substance of concern and set a water quality standard to keep the level of that contaminants below a certain threshold.

What we know from the science so far is that these chemicals are highly toxic.

We have three main ways that we regulate water quality in Wisconsin. One is drinking water. So municipal water systems that provide water to their communities have certain standards that they have to meet. And they are often required to test for certain contaminants, and if contaminants are present, to implement treatment technology to bring those levels below that threshold.

We also regulate surface water, and so the government puts limits or conditions on how people can discharge pollutants to surface water.

And as a matter of state law, we protect the groundwater that lies beneath the state surface, and that is the ultimate source of drinking water. For most Wisconsin residents, especially the one-third of Wisconsin residents that rely on private drinking water wells—whose drinking water comes directly from the groundwater through that private well, there’s no intermediary, there’s not a municipal utility that’s testing and treating the water. So the water protection laws that we have are designed so that the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) will promulgate water quality standards or thresholds for contaminants once they become known to be of concern.

LD: DNR collaborated with Kwik Trips, some local grocery stores, and CVS to bring us bottled water. So they literally had six semi-trucks full of cases of that water. And we set up a drive-through, and we had a bunch of our scouts help us and other volunteers in the community. People could drive up, and then each person in the household was entitled to, I think, five cases of water, which they felt would be enough time for them to get the contract with Culligan.

Screenshot of a webpage showing how to sign up for bottled water on the Town of Campbell’s official website, June 2024.

RW:And ever since then, French Island residents have been relying on bottles and jugs of water from Culligan to live their lives. Peter’s newborns are now three years old, and his family still cannot use any tap water. While the Culligan water is a lifeline for these families, it’s difficult to have to put so much thought and effort day in and day out into your water supply.

PD: I’ve actually got six jugs of water in the back of the car, because after we stopped with the kids, I was coming home, and I thought, we got to stop real quick and grab water before we get home because we’re on our last jugs.

I think for me the the strangest part, or the hardest part, about it is getting the water itself. You know, when you’re in this little warehouse with pallets and stacks of water, and you’re loading into your car, and it almost has this dystopian feel to it, where you’re like, this isn’t a scene that most people picture in America—having to go to a warehouse to get bottles of water because you can’t drink the water out of your tap at home. 

Featured image: Water and sediment samples from the Neshaminy Creek for PFAS testing. Photo by Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), 2023.

The Public Trust podcast on PFAS in Wisconsin is produced by Bonnie Willison and Richelle Wilson. You can listen to all the episodes on on AppleSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Bonnie Willison is a video and podcast producer with Wisconsin Sea Grant, where she uses her video and animation skills to showcase stories about Wisconsin Sea Grant’s work to promote the sustainable use of Great Lakes resources through research, education and outreach. Contact.

Richelle Wilson is a producer at Wisconsin Public Radio and a PhD candidate in Scandinavian studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She has previously worked as managing editor of the Edge Effects magazine and podcast, producer of A Public Affair at WORT FM, producer of season 1 of the Collegeland podcast, and co-producer and host of Public Trust, a podcast miniseries about PFAS contamination in Wisconsin created with support from a Mellon Public Humanities Graduate Fellowship. You can read and listen to more of her recent work on WPR’s website. Contact.