PFAS 101

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) pose a threat to Wisconsin’s population. These chemicals, which are found in our air, water, and soil, can have severe effects on our health.


PFAS are a group of artificial chemicals including commonly discussed substances like Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). They mainly consist of fluorine and carbon. These compounds can be found in our food if packaged with PFAS containing materials or grown in PFAS contaminated soil. They can also be found in commercial and household products like nonstick pans, water repellent fabrics, firefighting foam, drinking water, and much more. They can even linger when consumed in organisms like fish, animals, and humans. Carbon-fluorine bonds are especially strong, so PFAS don’t break down easily and remain in the environment for long periods of time. This is why these chemicals are often nicknamed “forever chemicals.” As a result, their harmful effects remain prevalent. For more information, check out our blog post discussing the dangers of mistaking PFAS and fluoride as well as PFAS contamination in Wisconsin by clicking here. While some types of PFAS (like PFOA and PFOS) are no longer manufactured in the U.S., they can still be imported and consequently consumed here. PFAS pose a threat to public health, which must be addressed.  

Contamination in Wisconsin 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recommended that our drinking water contains no more than 70 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFOA and PFOS. The state of Wisconsin has a health standard recommendation even lower at 20 ppt. Unfortunately, this standard is not always met. The following areas show especially high concentrations of PFAS (there are more areas in Wisconsin that have a concentration well above Wisconsin’s standard. For more information about these are as well as their sources, click on the links provided in the table)

Contamination Site 

Area located

Type of PFAS


General Mitchell Air Reserve Station

Milwaukee, Wisconsin


88-10,830 ppt

US Army Reserve Fort McCoy

Monroe County, Wisconsin


Up to 120,000 ppt 

Tyco-Ansul Fire Technology Center

Peshtigo, Wisconsin

PFOA and PFOS combined 

Up to 202,000 ppt 

Vokl Field Air National Guard Base 

Camp Douglas Wisconsin

PFAS in general

Up to 23,000 ppt

Madison Airport

Starkweather Creek


Up to 17,500 ppt in one outfall, up to 2,200 ppt in another. 


Furthermore, in January, state officials recommended that the people of Wisconsin avoid eating carp, largemouth bass, walleye, and perch caught in Lake Monona due to the PFOS concentration. There have been findings that the fish contain up to 110,000 ppt of PFOS. While the Department of Health Services recommends that we do not eat fish with PFOS concentrations above 200,000 ppt (higher than what was found in the fish) or 17,000 ppt for children and people “of childbearing age”, the chemical can accumulate in your body for years on end.

Health Effects

We are still learning about PFAS, so our knowledge on its effects is limited. What we have learned from studies conducted thus far is that PFAS can potentially “interfere with the body’s natural hormones; increase cholesterol levels; affect the immune system; and increase the risk of some cancers." Studies conducted on lab animals have shown that PFAS can also affect the liver, thyroid, and pancreas' ability to function. Furthermore it may impact hormone levels. However, since humans don't process PFAS the same way as animals, more research must be done to see how transferrable these findings are to humans. While people may hope that boiling water before drinking will make it safe to consume, this is not the case. This is likely because of PFAS resistance to heat. 

What can we do?

As we have seen, PFAS, which can be found in a number of areas in Wisconsin, pose a threat to our health, and we must ensure that all Wisconsinites are protected from this pollution. Want to take action with us to protect clean water in Wisconsin? Fill out our volunteer form here

Written by Michael Rehani, Organizing Project Aide for the Sierra Club Wisconsin Chapter.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of LimeSpiked