Sarah Swedberg’s morning routine is always the same: She gets up, heads to the kitchen sink and fills a 64-ounce bottle of water to sip throughout the day.
She encourages her three children, ages 8, 11 and 14, to do the same.
The Shawano resident assumes the water that her family is drinking is free of contaminants and not a health concern.
But she is wrong.
As a nonprofit journalism organization, we depend on your support to fund more than 170 reporting projects every year on critical global and local issues. Donate any amount today to become a Pulitzer Center Champion and receive exclusive benefits!
When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel tested her tap water for “forever chemicals”—man-made substances that have become an emerging health risk nationwide—it found one major compound at levels 128 times greater than the maximum allowable amount recommended by federal safety advisories.
“Now when I drink this, I think, ‘Oh wait, what is this doing to me?’” said Swedberg, a 44-year-old middle school teacher.
Others in Wisconsin have reason to be concerned.
The Journal Sentinel collected water from 40 homes across the state and sent the samples to a certified lab, which found that 12, or 30%, had at least one forever chemical compound over federal recommendations.
All the samples were collected in homes connected to municipal water systems, not private wells. That means high levels of forever chemicals, also known as PFAS, discovered in one home would be found in many other residences receiving water from that same system. The Journal Sentinel determined its tests revealed that tens of thousands of residents are receiving drinking water above what the federal Environmental Protection Agency says may be harmful for people to consume.
But the scope of the problem is likely much greater.
Although the Journal Sentinel’s testing targeted communities close to businesses likely to emit PFAS, such as paper mills or metal fabricators, in 36 of the 40 tests no one else had ever before sampled the water in those areas, suggesting that if more testing were done in other Wisconsin cities, more tainted drinking water would be uncovered.
Moreover, in three tests, the Journal Sentinel sampled water in communities where the state has said its own sampling showed no PFAS. In one of those cities, Janesville, the Journal Sentinel found levels over the federal recommendations, raising questions about whether some Wisconsin residents know their true risk.
Some residents whose water showed elevated levels of "forever chemicals" in the Journal Sentinel investigation called on local and state officials to immediately start routine testing.
“I think that’s their civil duty to us,” said Christine Wagner, whose home in Necedah in south-central Wisconsin had water with one forever chemical compound nearly 500 times over the federal recommendation. “For crying out loud, isn’t it part of their job?”
When told about high levels of the chemicals in their water, officials in several towns said they were concerned, with two saying they would take the issue up with their village boards. Officials in Shawano, where Swedberg’s water tested high, did not respond to requests for an interview.
Jim Zellmer, a state Department of Natural Resources official who oversees water testing, did not dispute the Journal Sentinel’s results. Given that Wisconsin has done little testing for forever chemicals, he acknowledged in an interview that some residents may be unknowingly drinking water with PFAS over EPA recommendations.
“Is it likely? We hope not," Zellmer said. "We don’t want people exposed to these substances. Is it possible? Certainly.”
Other leading public officials who oversee forever chemicals would not agree to be interviewed.
Preston Cole, secretary of the DNR, referred questions to Gov. Tony Evers, who would not be interviewed and did not answer questions about the Journal Sentinel’s results. A state Department of Health Services representative would not comment, and Wisconsin legislative leaders overseeing funding and rules regarding PFAS did not respond to emailed questions.
PFAS chemicals, a group of more than 10,000 compounds, are widely used in consumer products, including rain jackets, nonstick pots and pans, and waterproof mascara. They get into the environment through manufacturing, industrial waste, landfills and the use of firefighting foam. They are pernicious because they build up over time in both the environment, where they travel through soil into water, and in the body, where they cling to blood cells.
Research shows a link between the chemicals and elevated health risks, including certain types of cancers, thyroid problems, hypertension and, in pregnant women, gestational diabetes and preeclampsia.
Public health and chemical researchers are split on the risks of ingesting the compounds at the levels found in the Journal Sentinel tests. Some say the substances at any level can be harmful, but others aren’t so sure. The EPA came up with its advisory level this year after considering more than 400 peer-reviewed scientific studies.
The chemicals have increasingly been in the news as states pressure industries to remove the compounds from products and the federal government pledges more aggressive action.
Unlike many other states, such as Illinois and Michigan, Wisconsin has not conducted widespread testing for PFAS. When it has tested, it has sometimes found high levels. After high amounts were found in all six municipal wells in Wausau earlier this year, the city added a $16.8 million filtration system to clean its water.
Beginning this month, the DNR says, it will begin testing all public water systems quarterly under new state regulations. But that process will likely take several months, and, until then, millions of residents across the state might be in the dark about whether there are contaminants in their water.
The current state legal limit for PFAS is 70 parts per trillion molecules of water. None of the Journal Sentinel’s findings were above the state limit, but that rule was based on EPA recommendations made six years ago.
More recent EPA guidance, based on updated research on the chemicals' impact on human health, suggests a far stricter limit: under 0.004 parts per trillion for one of the two major PFAS compounds and 0.02 for another.
The EPA is currently studying a legal limit to cover the nation, which is expected before the end of the year.
Surprised at the findings
For a decade, Jennifer Drach’s family has sponsored wells in Ethiopia, where she adopted one of her three children.
Clean drinking water is a challenge there, but she was surprised to learn that her own tap in Janesville in southern Wisconsin had a high level of a forever chemical.
Journal Sentinel testing found 0.55 parts per trillion of the PFOS compound in the sample collected from her kitchen tap—28 times higher than the federal advisory.
Now, she’s questioning whether the water in her home in Janesville’s historic Courthouse Hill district is safe for her and her family.
“I just want to keep my kids safe. I want to keep myself, my husband safe,” said Drach, 46, who teaches kindergarten. “I do everything with this water. I cook. I bathe my kiddos in the bathtub with it. I send them to school with it.”
Wagner, the Necedah resident, said she had previously added a filter to her kitchen tap, thinking that would eliminate a variety of potential contaminants.
But testing by the Journal Sentinel found one forever chemical at 0.44 parts per trillion and a second at 1.8, both above EPA recommendations.
Wagner, a 58-year-old retired nurse, said her village should alert the community of the high amounts and that the state should routinely test for the chemicals.
"I just want to keep my kids safe. I want to keep myself, my husband safe."
Jennifer Drach, whose water showed elevated levels of forever chemicals
“This is a very impoverished area,” she said. “People cannot afford to just go and get water filters" and buy bottled water.
Necedah Administrator Roger Herried said he would present the Journal Sentinel’s results to the village board soon.
“Right now, most of our water comes from the refuge area and flows into the village,” he said, referring to the nearby Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. “There isn’t a whole lot of development in that area, so I don’t know where the PFAS originated from.”
In Delavan, in southern Wisconsin, the Journal Sentinel tested water in the home of Sue Kitzman, a retiree who worked 36 years for the city. Results showed 0.44 parts per trillion of the PFOS compound—22 times higher than the EPA guidance but lower than the state’s legal limit.
“I’m not at all concerned,” Kitzman said. “We’re well under the state standard.”
Wisconsin slow to act
Wisconsin’s foot-dragging on forever chemicals dates to 2017, when officials of Tyco Fire Products of Marinette informed the DNR that they had known for years about contamination on company property. The chemicals, the firm said, were likely seeping into neighboring communities.
Tyco, a subsidiary of Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls, tested firefighting foam containing forever chemicals outdoors on a concrete pad for 55 years—from 1962 to 2017. After tests, the company washed the compounds into nearby storm sewers and soil in Marinette.
The state, under former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, asked Tyco to test the water of nearby residents. When it did, it found high levels of the chemicals.
But Tyco wasn’t the only company in Wisconsin using PFAS, and the community around its plant wasn’t the only one at risk.
Many different industries—from paper to cookware to clothing—used the compounds in production and could have been releasing them into the environment. Under the Walker administration, the state did not look to see whether the odorless, tasteless chemical had seeped into the drinking water of other communities.
After Walker’s term ended, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in 2019 created an advisory group that drew up suggestions on how to confront the PFAS issue, including additional testing. But those recommendations were rejected by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Since then, the DNR's policy-setting board began the process of creating administrative rules to limit the amount of PFAS in drinking water. Officials in the state Department of Health Services proposed a 20-parts-per-trillion limit; Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s leading business lobby, pushed for a less strict limit of 70 parts per trillion.
Earlier this year, the policy-setting board sided with the lobbying group and settled on 70 parts per trillion.
By comparison, in Michigan, the allowable limits on the two major forever chemicals are 16 and 8 parts per trillion. In Maine, the limit is 20 for both compounds, and this year the state banned the use of the substances in consumer products by 2030 — the first state to issue such a ban.
When Wisconsin authorities did start testing for PFAS in 2020, three years after chemical contamination was discovered near the Tyco plant, they did not initially test drinking water. Instead, they tested only wastewater at a handful of industrial sites and municipalities because that was the requirement of their federal funding, said Zellmer, of the DNR.
Even then, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce stepped in, suing the state to block the wastewater testing. A court eventually gave the lobbyists a partial victory, barring the state from disclosing the locations where testing occurred but allowing the raw results.
“You are in an environment here where the DNR gets challenged anytime it significantly uses its authority, and that is a real problem,” said Bill Davis, an attorney with Madison-based River Alliance of Wisconsin, a clean-water advocacy group.
A spokesperson for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Earlier this year, after receiving $600,000 from the EPA, the state offered to test drinking water in any municipality in Wisconsin. So far, 140 opted in—just 13% of Wisconsin’s communities.
Double-checking the state
In three tests, the Journal Sentinel intentionally tested water for PFAS where the state said there was none.
The reporters wanted to know: When the state sampled certain communities and determined there were no forever chemicals—essentially giving residents the “all clear” signal—were those findings accurate?
The newspaper decided to test water in Baraboo, Whitewater and Janesville, all home to PFAS-emitting businesses. In each of those towns, testing by the state earlier this year showed no detection of forever chemicals.
In Baraboo and Whitewater, Journal Sentinel testing found the same thing: No PFAS.
But when the newspaper tested water in Drach’s home in Janesville, it found levels of one PFAS compound 28 times over federal recommendations.
When told of the discrepancy, Janesville’s water director, David Botts, speculated that it was Drach’s water pipes. He said she should “hire a plumber to see what could be causing the difference.”
“The only explanation we would have for the difference is there is something in the house that is causing the change since the water we are providing to the house shows ‘not detects,’” he wrote in an email.
But chemical experts say plumbing and pipes are not a source of PFAS contamination.
The DNR's Zellmer said he was puzzled by the Journal Sentinel’s finding in Janesville.
He said that forever chemicals move slowly through soil and water. “I wouldn’t expect to see significant changes over weeks or months,” he said. “The concentration in Janesville’s water today should be consistent with what you’ve previously seen.”
Journal Sentinel testing found a similar issue in Madison, the state’s second-largest city with 277,000 people.
Since 2017, Madison has tested its city water and consistently found two major compounds of forever chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, in several of its wells. In 2019, it shut off one because of contamination.
But when the state tested Madison’s water this spring, it found PFOS in just one of the city’s 21 wells and no PFOA in any.
When the Journal Sentinel tested a Madison resident’s water in the summer, it found both compounds over the federal advisories.
Both state and Madison officials said the differences are likely because the city blends water from multiple wells that is then pumped to residences.
"It's important to think of everything you're putting into your body and what those long-term effects can be."
Sarah Swedberg of Shawano
Joe Grande, Madison’s water quality manager, said the city is aware of its ongoing PFAS contamination and is researching options to remove the chemicals from city wells.
Sarah Swedberg, the Shawano mom who fills up her water bottle each morning, said she is now in the market for a filter for her kitchen tap to limit contamination. She also wants her city to test routinely and offer guidance on what is safe.
"It's important to think of everything you're putting into your body and what those long-term effects can be," she said.
How we conducted the investigation
From June to August 2022, two Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters collected water samples from 40 residential homes across Wisconsin and sent them to a lab to be analyzed for “forever chemicals,” also known as PFAS.
For 36 of the tests, the Journal Sentinel chose communities based on a map created by the Environmental Working Group, a national advocacy nonprofit that studies PFAS contamination. Reporters selected municipalities where, according to the map, there was at least one potential PFAS-emitting business within or near its borders. Another criterion for selection was that the communities had not been previously tested by local or state officials.
For three additional tests, the Journal Sentinel selected three communities whose water had already been tested by the state and was found to contain no contaminants. The goal of those samples was to see if the results of the Journal Sentinel testing matched those of the state. An additional test took place in Madison because state testing did not match local testing.
To analyze the samples, the Journal Sentinel hired Northern Lake Service, a lab in Crandon, that is certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Natural Resources. Northern Lake Service has conducted PFAS testing for municipalities nationwide, analyzing more than 15,000 samples over the last decade.
Once a testing location was chosen, reporters drove to the community and knocked on doors to find residents willing to have their water sampled. To better gauge the scope of the problem, the Journal Sentinel tested only water from homes on municipal water systems and not those drawing from private wells. One sample was taken in each community selected.
When residents agreed to allow their water to be tested, reporters followed the lab’s training and industry testing protocol, which included letting the tap run cold for five minutes before putting on gloves and filling two plastic bottles provided by the lab. The reporters placed the samples in a cooler with ice and shipped them to the lab. Reporters coded each sample so that lab workers did not know where the samples were taken.
The lab used an EPA-designated method to analyze each sample for 18 PFAS compounds, including the two compounds regulated by the state of Wisconsin: PFOA and PFOS.
Reporters shared the results, including lab reports, with each homeowner and an official in their municipality.