Great Lakes environmental groups on Tuesday said they were sounding an alarm over PFAS chemicals in the region’s groundwater, in public and private wells and in surface waters, and the threats those chemicals pose to both human and environmental health.

The nonprofit groups released a 49-page report showing the PFAS — often associated with fire retardants, stain repellents and non-stick cookware — are polluting not just near where they were produced, but also where they have been used or dumped, including across the Great Lakes region.

Both the Environmental Protection Agency and Congress are mulling new PFAS actions, but neither have formed any formal plan as yet. The groups called on elected officials at the state and national levels to take quick action to stop the flow of chemicals into the environment and keep the chemicals away from humans and wildlife.

“PFAS contamination is an open wound in Wisconsin’’ that needs immediate attention, said Tom Johnston of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation in a telephone press conference with reporters.

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances are sometimes called "forever chemicals'' because they don't break down and bio-accumulate. They are used in baby products — baby mats, pads, blankets and bibs. They are also used in waterproofing outdoor clothing, including rain jackets, snowsuits and winter gloves, as well as in bed linens, carpets, footwear, non-stick pots and pans, toothpaste and dental floss, and other personal care products. The chemicals are also used extensively in firefighting foam, with use at military bases, airports and refineries.

“We’re playing catch-up to a crisis that has been unfolding for decades, and state and federal lawmakers need to act with urgency,” said Oday Salim, staff attorney at the National Wildlife Federation and co-author of the report. “The good news is that public officials have tools at their disposal to confront the PFAS crisis and to protect the health of people and wildlife. We urge elected officials to act now, before the problem gets worse and more costly to solve. We look forward to working with elected officials to advance manageable solutions.”

Studies have documented multiple effects, including cancers in highly exposed groups — especially testicular and kidney cancers — as well as impacts to the immune system and metabolism. Evidence also indicates that elevated PFAS in wildlife can lead to developmental and reproductive problems, the groups noted.

In the Great Lakes region, elevated levels of PFAS have been found in insect-eating birds such as tree swallows, in deer, in fish and in fish-eating birds including great blue herons and bald eagles. PFAS chemicals have spurred fish consumption advisories in some areas and, in Michigan, a "do not eat" advisory for deer meat in at least one county because a local wetland is contaminated with PFAS.

Local impact

In the Northland, PFAS chemicals have been found in waterways near Duluth International Airport, where air base fire crews had used firefighting foams that carried the chemicals. In 2010 the News Tribune first reported that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency had found levels of PFOS, a type of PFAS, in Rice Lake north of Duluth, with PCA officials at the time saying the chemicals likely traced back to the Minnesota Air National Guard base. It's also been found in groundwater near the airport.

Currently the "Duluth Air National Guard is in the process of investigating the PFAS contamination on and surrounding the base,'' Lucie Amundsen, PCA spokeswoman in Duluth, said Tuesday.

The Minnesota Air National Guard is considered the reasonable party for the PFAS contamination near the airport base and any future remediation. The PCA said the Air National Guard is now conducting a "supplemental investigation'' on the airport area contamination.

Small amounts of PFAS also have been found in some wetlands and creeks, and some private drinking water wells, in western Duluth near what had been an aircraft firefighter training facility operated by Lake Superior College. PCA officials have said those chemicals were below safe drinking water standards and thus not a health threat. Training center officials said they no longer use any materials that contain PFAS chemicals. It appears the PFAS chemicals were used from 1994 to 1996. (The facility, now called the Emergency Response Training Center, has since been redesigned as a structural fire training center.)

One year after the fire and explosion at the Husky Energy refinery in Superior, traces of firefighting foam containing PFAS were still being detected in Newton Creek.

Several other sites statewide also have been targeted for testing due to PFAS contamination, many near fire training facilities and airports.

Since 2002, state officials have issued nearly 1,100 private well advisories due to PFAS levels. In April the Minnesota Department of Health lowered the health-based advisory values for PFO, to 15 parts per trillion, down from the previous level of 27 parts per trillion set in 2017. The level is now the state's safe drinking water standard for public water systems and private wells.

Minnesota's 3M Company manufactured PFAS at its plant in Cottage Grove, Minn., for decades beginning in the 1950s. 3M legally disposed of waste containing PFAS in landfills in the eastern suburbs of the Twin Cities metro area. The chemicals leached into the groundwater in nearby cities . The state sued 3M in 2010 and the case was settled in 2018 when 3M agreed to pay $850 million to provide safe drinking water and clean up contamination near their eastern Twin Cities manufacturing facility.

The groups on Tuesday said it was unclear if a divided Congress or the Trump administration would take any action on PFAS issues and thus urged state officials to act, including using the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act and Superfund Act to enforce action against PFAS contamination and spur cleanup efforts.

The full report can be found at nwf.org/pfasreport.