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Special Report: Water Quality

Wisconsin Passes $125 Million Bill to Address PFAS Contamination

by Valeria Moreno Lopez, age 17

Dangerous artificial chemicals like PFAS have polluted Wisconsin’s waters and towns for decades. The Wisconsin State Assembly recently passed a $125 million bill to control and test for PFAS contamination in groundwater across the state, yet it could also exempt polluters from liability.

PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are synthetic chemicals in many industry and consumer items, including cookware and water-resistant products. These chemicals are difficult to remove from nature and do not fully decompose. They seep into groundwater and lakes, and ingesting them can lead to a weakened immune system, liver disease, and cancer.

The legislation would offer grants to local governments and private landowners, using $125 million from the state’s budget trust fund to remove PFAS in wells and water treatment plants. Under Wisconsin’s “Spills Law,” anyone who causes or owns a dangerous substance released into the environment must clean it up. However, Democrats say the PFAS bill protects polluters because, in some scenarios, taxpayers would have to clean up the mess. Furthermore, a legislative committee must approve the funding for the legislation before it can help Wisconsinites with contamination. [Read More]

Children of Color in Wisconsin More Likely to Test Positive for Lead Poisoning

by Hanna Eyobed, age 18

Low-income communities and children of color in Milwaukee are disproportionately harmed by lead poisoning. Affecting one of eight children across most regions of Milwaukee, lead poisoning is a prevalent problem with serious health effects that raise concerns.

Black children are four times more likely to be victims of lead poisoning than white children, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. With lead poisoning rates of 6.5%, Black children lead in the city of Milwaukee, followed by: Native American (3.2%), Asian American & Pacific Islander (3%), Hispanic (2.6%), and white (1.6%) children. The city has the highest lead poisoning rate for children under the age of six in Wisconsin. Lead poisoning can cause damage to the brain and nervous system along with halting development and growth in children. Fortunately, the percentage of children found with hazardous amounts of lead in their blood (5mgc/dl) has gradually decreased since 2001.

“Lead poisoning is an issue where there are disparities by both socioeconomic status and race and ethnicity,” DHS epidemiologist Maeve Pell stated. [Read More]

It's Stormwater Week in Wisconsin! Have You Seen one of these Murals in Your Neighborhood?

by Josepha Da Costa

It's Stormwater Week in Wisconsin. Did you know that when rainwater runs off the land and enters a storm drain, it often empties into a nearby body of water and remains untreated?

This poses a problem because increased urbanization in Dane County is creating more runoff. Many surfaces in urban areas are either impervious or absorb very little water, like roads and traditional lawns. Stormwater Week is dedicated to raising awareness about stormwater, and these dangers. [Read More]

Dane County Continues to “Suck the Muck” from Yahara River

by Leilani McNeal, age 17

Dane County is continuing its sediment removal efforts in and around the Yahara River. County Executive Joe Parisi and staff from the County’s Land & Water Resources Department recently highlighted this year’s projects during an announcement at Babcock County Park.

It’s all part of a five-phase plan called the Yahara Chain of Lakes Sediment Removal Project. The Yahara river is located in Southern Wisconsin, mostly in Dane County. It flows through and connects Lakes Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, and Kegnosa. These lakes are central to life in Madison and Dane County, both for wildlife species and for people.

The Yahara River drains an area of about 536 square miles before entering the Rock River and flowing toward the Mississippi. The Yahara has a lot to do with the health of Madison’s lakes. [Read More]

Wisconsin Among the States Rejecting $10.5 Billion PFAS Settlement with 3M Company

by Alan Cruz, age 19

Attorneys General from 22 states, including Wisconsin, are denouncing a proposed lawsuit settlement that they argue would absolve manufacturing giant 3M from responsibility for the widespread contamination of water supplies with hazardous 'forever chemicals.'

The landmark $10.5 billion agreement aims to fund chemical testing and the installation of water filtration systems over three years. However, 3M doesn’t admit liability. Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS, have been found in aqueous firefighting foam and are by-products of numerous manufacturing processes. These persistent chemicals have been linked to various health issues, including cancer and reduced birth rates. [Read More]

Wisconsin Begins PFAS Testing this Fall

by Sandy Flores Ruíz, age 16

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, are a family of synthetic chemicals. They are used in everyday household products, such clothes, carpets, nonstick cookware, packaging, and firefighting foam due to their ability to repel water and stains. The PFAS family of approximately 5,000 chemicals are known as “forever chemicals” because they last for a long period of time in the environment and human body. Research suggests that these chemicals can cause various types of cancers, decrease birth weights, damage the immune and reproductive systems, impact hormone regulation, and alter thyroid hormones.

Since 2019, the DNR has been working to develop standards for two of the better known PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, to determine safe levels of these two chemicals in public water systems. Beginning this fall, Wisconsin communities will be required to test their water to ensure that the PFOA and PFOS do not exceed limits set by the State of Wisconsin.[Read More]

Manufacturing Giant Reaches Landmark $10.3 Billion Settlement to Address PFAS Contaminated Water

by Alan Cruz, age 19

Manufacturing giant 3M, known for producing household staples like Scotch Tape, Command Strips, and Post-it notes, has settled with numerous cities and towns across the nation for $10.3 billion. This agreement aims to tackle the persistent problem of water supply contamination caused by the presence of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) also referred to as "forever chemicals," which have been identified as posing threats to human health.

Under the agreement, 3M will pay the landmark sum over 13 years to support communities. [Read More]

Drought Causes Saltwater to Invade the Mississippi River System

by Dulce Vazquez, age 14

The Mississippi River water level is reaching historical lows. A part of the Mississippi River measured in New Orleans is just three feet above sea level, which is very unusual and damaging to the boats that rely on the river and causes wildlife to act in different ways.

A third of the rain that falls in the United States goes to the Mississippi River system. Less rainfall is coming from the Midwest, which scientists are describing as a drought. This drought is causing many problems for ships and barges as mud clogs pathways, creating navigation difficulties. [Read More]

Study Reveals PFAS Contamination in Wisconsin Bald Eagles

by Samuel Garduño, age 16

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemical compounds, more commonly known as PFAS or forever chemicals, are odorless and tasteless compounds known to be produced in the US since the 1940s. What many people don’t realize, however, is that they are significantly more common than speculated. They are found in our air and water; stain-resistant materials, clothing, carpets, nonstick cookware, food packaging, firefighting foam; and so many other everyday essentials. Although PFAS are extremely common, scientists are still learning all of their effects.

Wildlife isn’t exempt from the threat of PFAS. Although testing has prioritized bald eagles, Wisconsin has also examined other wildlife, including fish, deer, waterfowl, and small mammals. Bald eagles are a prime candidate, as they are an apex predator of the food chain and a prized, almost sacred, animal amongst the American public. Since bald eagles are at the top of the food chain, their blood will show a presence of PFAS, metals, pesticides, and contaminants that amass through indirect and direct exposure. What happens in the environment parallels what affects humans.

Wisconsin’s private and public water systems have been tainted with traces of PFAS, although scientists don’t know the source. Biologists at the Genoa National Fish Hatchery started researching the effects of PFAS on mussels in the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes. The hatchery has been partnering with an outside lab that already has experience with chemical testing, but lab testing PFAS is time-consuming. Eight to ten samples have been shipped a month, but mussels take ten months to grow and three years to show conclusions. Megan Bradley, a biologist at the hatchery, hopes the lab testing will aid in establishing water standards as well as identifying PFAS contamination sources. For instance, the Wisconsin River was the most contaminated body of water identified by the eagle testing, but the source remains unknown. [Read More]

Toxic TCE Chemical Found in Two Milwaukee Residential Buildings

by Alan Cruz, age 19

Trichloroethylene (TCE), a toxic carcinogen, recently gained attention in Milwaukee, when 250 Milwaukee residents first heard about this hazardous chemical from health officials knocking on their doors. They were evacuated from two apartment complexes in the area due to elevated levels of toxins remaining from the sites’ industrial history. Surprisingly, none of the tenants, despite experiencing short-term symptoms, were familiar with this harmful chemical.

This colorless liquid is found in certain factories for metal cleaning and can also be found in paint removers, adhesives, carpet cleaners, dry cleaning, and shoe polishes. Short-term exposure to TCE can result in dizziness, headaches, nausea, sleepiness, and confusion. Higher toxicity levels corresponding to prolonged exposure are associated with various health issues, including cancers, liver damage, and fetal defects, with effects that can manifest decades after exposure.

In Milwaukee County alone, there are 832 sites with a history of TCE pollution, and 261 of these sites are undergoing cleanup efforts. The remaining locations have been shuttered, suggesting that cleanup activities are complete, however, TCE may still be present. [Read More]

The Fox River Cleanup, A Battle Against Decades of Pollution

by Sofia Zapata, age 14

The Fox River flows across central and east-central Wisconsin to Green Bay and was contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals during the mid-20th century It took almost 17 years to clean the entire river.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, the Fox River began to be contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, created by seven Fox River Valley paper companies. This chemical compound causes various harmful effects such as cancer and other health conditions. In addition, this substance can cause liver damage, acne-like skin, and neurobehavioral and immunological abnormalities in children.

There were many debates around the cleanup of the Fox River. One of them was about who would pay for the cleanup. Environmental activists said that the seven companies should pay to clean the river because they were the ones who contaminated it. However, the seven companies argued that taxpayers should also have to pay some of the cost. At the end of this argument, everyone decided that the seven paper companies responsible had to pay all the costs with a total estimated $1.3 billion. [Read More]

Ultrasound Waves Offer a Solution for Microplastics in Water

by Ayelen Flores Ruiz, age 13

Pollution has become a big problem in today’s economy. Microplastics are a type of pollution that is really small and barely visible yet they are found in our bodies, causing a lot of damage. Microplastics can contain toxic chemicals, viruses, and bacteria.

These plastic bits are an issue for humans and wildlife. These plastics are incredibly hard to see, even smaller than a sesame seed, and no more than five millimeters wide. The bits can be found in water, air, and foods leading to their accumulation in human bodies as resources are utilized. The materials within these bits can contain toxic chemicals. Additionally, both bacteria and viruses can attach themselves to the microplastic. Wildlife can also ingest plastic bits through drinking water from rivers or the ocean.

A source of this problem is to lack of recycling and microbeads that are not fully deconstructed by water filters. Microplastics are tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene, which are then added to exfoliants and beauty products like cleansers, and toothpaste. As a result, it is not clear where these tiny particles flourish and if it is at the beginning of the stage of water filtration. Bodies of water are now contaminated with these plastic bits and due to the small size of these materials, it is easy for them to pass right through water filtration systems. After not being removed, microplastics end up in the ocean and Great Lakes which poses a threat to aquatic life. [Read More]

Wisconsin Launches Online Map to Track PFAS Pollution Across the State

by Alan Cruz, age 19

Wisconsin environmental regulators have taken a significant step in addressing the issue of toxic “forever chemicals” by unveiling an innovative online tool. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) introduced an interactive map in October designed to track the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination.

The newly launched online map combines data from various sources, including drinking and surface water monitoring programs, health consumption advisories, and a comprehensive database of contaminated sites. By consolidating this information into a single accessible platform, the DNR hopes to help people find out about how pollution is affecting them and their community.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has already identified these compounds as harmful at levels currently undetectable by existing technology. These synthetic chemicals, known for their resistance to environmental degradation, have been connected to severe health concerns such as low birth weight, cancer, and liver disease. [Read More]

Wisconsin Rejects $1 Billion Dupont Settlement, Seeks Higher Compensation Over PFAS Contamination

By Will DeFour, age 13

The average person consumes approximately half a gallon of water daily, but this water isn't pure, as filtration systems sometimes allow pollutants to pass through. One particularly infamous group of pollutants, known as "forever chemicals," poses significant threats to both the environment and human health.

These persistent pollutants are called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), an issue Simpson Street Free Press has been diligently covering for the past several years. They earned the name "forever chemicals" due to their indestructible resistance to biodegradation. PFAS are byproducts created during the manufacture of various products, including sticky notes, nonstick pans, packaging materials, carpets, and firefighting foam. These chemicals find their way into water sources such as the Mississippi River and local areas like Starkweather Creek, here in Madison. Even at extremely low concentrations, as low as 0.004 parts per trillion, PFAS can cause severe health problems, including low birth weight, kidney failure, and cancer.

Addressing these critical issues requires a reduction in PFAS contamination. Although the US Environmental Protection Agency and State Department of Natural Resources have attempted to establish regulations for these chemicals across the Midwest, their efforts have proven insufficient to halt the contamination. Consequently, over 20 states have denounced a proposed $10.5 billion settlement from a major PFAS producer, 3M. [Read More]

La Empresa de fabricación 3M contamina el río Mississippi con los ‘químicos eternos’

por Alan Cruz, edad 19

A fines de la década 2000, se hizo evidente que los "químicos eternos" estaban presentes en el torrente sanguíneo de casi todos los estadounidenses. Como resultado, los funcionarios de Minnesota presionaron a 3M para que redujera los contaminantes derramados en el río Mississippi en su planta de fabricación al sureste de las Ciudades Gemelas. 3M es un conglomerado global que creó estos químicos extremadamente tóxicos para usar en su amplia gama de productos, desde adhesivos hasta materiales médicos, de construcción y artículos de limpieza para el hogar. Las demandas impulsaron a 3M a reducir la contaminación y limpiar los químicos eternos en lugares cercanos a otra de sus fábricas. Estos químicos se conocen como compuestos de perfluoroalquilo y polifluoroalquilo (PFAS). En Illinois, es una historia diferente. Una instalación de 3M en el río Mississippi, aproximadamente a 15 millas de Quad Cities, ha estado contaminando el aire y el agua durante más de una década. Los reguladores del estado de Illinois han fallado repetidamente en responsabilizar a la compañía.

Los efectos nocivos de los químicos eternos ahora se están volviendo evidentes. Según David Cwiertny, profesor de ingeniería y director del Centro de Efectos de la Contaminación Ambiental en la Salud de la Universidad de Iowa, "es difícil comprender cuán devastador podría ser esto para las personas en la cuenca del Mississippi y el ecosistema del río." El cáncer y otras enfermedades son provocadas por ciertos químicos eternos que se acumulan en la sangre humana y tardan varios años en salir del cuerpo. La Agencia de Protección Ambiental de EE. UU. (EPA) concluyó que dos de los PFAS que más se han examinado son tan peligrosos que realmente no existe un nivel seguro de exposición. [Read More]

New Land Purchase Will Protect Wildlife and Wetlands in Dane County

by Dulce Maria Vazquez, age 14

Groundswell Conservancy is a not-for-profit conservation group that recently bought 34 acres of wetland habitat in Dane County. The land is in the Town of Dunn near the Lower Mud Lake Natural Resource Area. This purchase will help groundswell achieve its mission of protecting wildlife habitats in Dane County and south-central Wisconsin.

Wetlands like the one recently purchased are areas that are flooded with water that can either be permanent or seasonal. These wetlands help manage floods, which is critical for the city of Madison's lakes. The landowners who sold the property wanted these lands to be protected.

Groundswell has to manage the property regularly to supply permanent habitat for ducks and other wildlife. The financing to obtain the land comes from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program and a U.S Fish and Wildlife grant, which Ducks Unlimited administers. [Read More]

Free Native Plants Available for Schools and Community Projects

by Camila Cruz, age 15

Is your school or community organization looking to install or expand a native plant garden? Many people these days look for ways to help the local environment, and planting native plants is a good way to start.

Well, you’re in luck. The Dane County Land & Water Resources Department is offering free native plants. The department is currently accepting applications from schools and community groups in Dane County. For more information about this program or to download the application, visit the Land & Water Resources Department website.

Native plants can help improve water quality and wildlife habitat. Plants that are native to Wisconsin tend to do better in our local growing conditions. Native plants have deep root systems, and this provides many benefits. For example, they reduce stormwater runoff and help protect nearby bodies of water. These plants are also more resistant to drought and disease. [Read More]

Cherokee Marsh Regulates Water Flow to Yahara Lakes and Provides Habitat for Native Wildlife

by Mariama Bah, age 13

Cherokee Marsh is home to a variety of flora and fauna that thrive in this unique and significant ecosystem. The marsh is also a very important part of Dane County’s natural environment.

Trees are especially scarce in marshes. Instead, these wetlands boast an abundance of herbaceous plants. Common plants at Cherokee Marsh include cattails, sago pondweed, and hard stem bulrush. This site also supports several rare plant species such as glade mallow, white ladyslipper, and tufted bulrush. Many mammals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians live in the marsh.

The animals and plants that thrive in Cherokee Marsh are a part of a precise and very special ecosystem. There are some invasive species, however, that threaten the native species at the Cherokee Marsh site. The Dane County Land and Water Resources Department (LWRD) has taken efforts to remove carp, which cause destruction by uprooting the aquatic plants and sediment. [Read More]

Thousands of Sick Kids Linked to Lead Pipes in Milwaukee

by Sydney Steidl, age 15

More than 9,000 Wisconsin children were found to have lead poisoning between 2018 and 2020, with nearly two out of three of those children from Milwaukee County.

There are many possible causes for lead exposure and eventual poisoning, including lead-based paints and lead-tainted water, soil, and dust. Lead-based pipes and paints were often used in homes built many decades ago, so it is no surprise that 90% of children with lead poisoning in Wisconsin live in homes built before 1950.

Out of Milwaukee County children tested in 2020, about 5.6% were positive for lead poisoning. Exposure to lead can impair brain and nervous system functions and result in severe learning, behavioral, and growth problems in children. [Read More]

Scientists Study Effects of Climate Change in Lake Superior

by Moises A. Hernandez, age 17

About ten years ago, a bloom of cyanobacteria appeared in Lake Superior. Since that time, scientists have searched for answers as to why this problem occurs in this specific lake.

Lake Superior—bordered by Canada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan—holds one-tenth of our planet’s surface freshwater. The largest of the Great Lakes of North America, Lake Superior is also the world's largest freshwater lake by surface area and third largest by volume.

Cyanobacteria, also known as Cyanophyta, are blue-green algae that can use up oxygen and block light, harming organisms trapped underwater. Due to their short life, however, the few blooms that do occur in Lake Superior are typically small. Samples and good data are limited. [Read More]

Dead Fish Wash up on Lake Michigan Shoreline

by Haliah Berkowitz, age 11

Did you know that there is a type of fish in Lake Michigan that simply dies off due to changes to their environment?

These types of fish are called the Alewive. They are an invasive species, which means that they arrived in Lake Michigan by accident. They came here through the Welland Canal in the 1930s, about 70 years ago. They are native to the Atlantic Ocean.

Alewives are a saltwater fish. They are a silver color. They grow ten inches minimum. The maximum length for an adult is 16 inches. [Read More]

Invasive Noxious Weed Spotted in Wisconsin

by Daniel Li, age 14

Last July, a new population of the invasive plant called the European frog-bit was found in Oconto, near Lake Michigan. Although this species is common in the coastal areas of Lakes Erie and Huron, its origins are in Europe and parts of Asia and Africa. The first spotting of the European frogbit in Wisconsin was at a nursery in 2018, and it was seen again in 2021 in Oconto. It’s assumed that the plant was transferred by long-distance boats, or from aquariums, where it is used decoratively.

The species grows in slow and shallow waters, often along lakes, swamps, rivers, and almost all other freshwater sources. It is “stoloniferous.” According to Ken Dolata of the Oconto County Land Conservation Department, this means the plant has “a horizontal stem that is located above the ground and usually produces adventitious [random] roots and vertical stems at the nodes.”

The leaves of the frogbit are leather-like and can grow up to two and a half inches long. This plant produces flowers that are heart-shaped and white, and can easily be mistaken for native species like the waterlily or water shield. [Read More]

When Exploring Dane County’s Sugar River, Keep and Eye Out for Invasive Species

by Dayanara Flores Gonzalez, age 14

The Sugar River, also known as The Upper Sugar River Watershed, is located in Dane County and flows all the way down to the Rock River.

The Upper Sugar River Watershed Association works to protect the river from invasive species that can harm or push out native species and damage the ecosystem. Many rare and endangered native plants found in the river and its nearby wetlands are threatened. Most wetland animals depend on these native plants for food and shelter.

Some native species can disappear if a watershed loses its healthy wetlands. Recreational uses of wetlands include trapping, fishing, bird watching, and nature study. Healthy wetlands can help with keeping the water clean and safe for wildlife. Healthy wetlands also help control and prevent floods. [Read More]

State of Wisconsin Issues PFAS Warnings for Dane County Fisheries

by Makaya Rodriguez, age 17

PFAS, also known as (poly-fluoroalkyl substances), are man-made chemicals. They were used on clothing, carpets, non-stick pans, cookware, and as firefighting foam. PFAS are made to be stain and water-resistant. These PFAS chemicals are being found in many Wisconsin bodies of water, specifically in Dane County.

Anglers are being advised to watch out for certain fish in lakes and rivers around Madison waters, such as Starkweather Creek, Lake Monona, Wingra Creek, Lake Waubesa, and Rock River. In these particular areas, officials have found levels of PFAS, and recommend not consuming walleye, largemouth bass, crappie, and northern pike more than once a month. Additionally, the consumption of fish such as yellow perch, pumpkinseeds, and bluegills is not advised more than once a week. Taking these precautions into consideration will help avoid the accumulation of PFAS in the human body. Black Earth Creek has seen especially high numbers of PFAS in brown trout. This raises concerns as the creek flows northwesterly, from Middleton into the Wisconsin River. [Read More]

Wisconsin DNR will Help Fire Departments Dispose of PFAS Foam

by Makya Rodriguez, age 18

Wisconsin is trying to eliminate foams containing PFAS used by firefighters, a move that would benefit the environment by removing hazardous chemicals. PFAS, also known as poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are man-made chemicals. They are used on clothing, carpets, non-stick pans, cookware, and in firefighting foam. It’s a “forever chemical.”It’s family contains 5,000 compounds which are known to last forever in the environment and human bodies.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wants to help firefighters clean PFAS chemicals free of charge. The DNR’s foam collection program is doing this with a state fund of $1 million. Of 72 Wisconsin counties, 60 want to cooperate on eliminating PFAS foam through the program. 25,000 gallons of the foam will be eliminated through North Shore Environmental construction.

Once the foam gets removed from certain locations, the program stated that it will send the waste to a hazardous landfill in Alabama. Lining the waterways of the landfill will ensure that PFAS won’t escape into the environment. Once in Alabama, it is said that the PFAS will be stored in cement, where it is better off than in local lakes, rivers, sewers, and drinking water. [Read More]

Wisconsin Considers Updated PFAS Rules — by Gabriella Shell, age 16

After failure earlier this year, the Wisconsin DNR is once again attempting to tighten restrictions on one of the state’s biggest water pollutants. [Read More]