After high PFAS levels found in Rhinelander water well, Northwoods lab president warns of limitations of testsSubmitted: 07/29/2019
Story By Ben Meyer

After high PFAS levels found in Rhinelander water well, Northwoods lab president warns of limitations of tests
CRANDON - People in Rhinelander can now feel safe drinking city water, according to the city and the Oneida County Health Department.

Since late June, a city well has been shut down. That well was found to have water with high levels of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have been linked to health issues.

But a Northwoods water testing expert says the process for detecting PFAS levels is relatively new and has plenty of limitations.

Northern Lake Service in Crandon is the only lab in the state that can test for PFAS. President RT Krueger says the quantities his lab tests for are miniscule.

"We're looking for incredibly minute amounts of these compounds," Krueger said Monday.

A test showed a water sample taken May 30 from Rhinelander's Well 7 had 104.8 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFAS. An additional test, using water collected June 27, showed the PFAS level at 86.9 ppt.

New state recommendations set the limit at 20 ppt.

"Those are the numbers that are protective of people in Wisconsin," said Dr. Sarah Yang, a groundwater toxicologist for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Yang helped develop the recommendation, which came out in June.

"The person who is at the most risk is actually the developing baby inside a pregnant mom, and then that baby when it's being breastfed by the mom," Yang said. "We actually used some new studies to make sure that we're protecting that most sensitive population."

That recommendation is not yet law. It's undergoing DNR review, which will likely take years.

But Krueger is concerned about the urgency of PFAS regulation.

"There's been a rush to regulate them," he said. "I can understand the balance between people being concerned about these things, but I also understand that it is a process that we need to take our time and make sure we understand the ramifications."

Krueger worries PFAS testing and headlines run the risk of unduly scaring people before full, robust tests are even available.

He's confident his tests are accurate, but notes tests aren't even developed for many other compounds in the PFAS family.

"We're really, really pushing the limits of what those methods were originally set out to do. That doesn't mean that those methods can't do it, it just means that we have to be very, very careful of what we expect from those methods," Krueger said.

The current tests are like a bathroom scale, Krueger said. The scale works well for weighing a person or a dog, but not for things much heavier or lighter.

"Right now, we're trying to weigh butterflies and elephants in a method that's really good for weighing me and my dog," he said.

Krueger calls the technological and regulatory complexity of PFAS testing the most challenging he's ever experienced.

Last week, the DNR set out another testing plan. It's asking 125 cities, villages, and towns to test for PFAS in their wastewater.

Krueger is skeptical existing tests can do that effectively.

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