Consumer health and food safety groups this week called on 16 fast-food restaurants to stop the unnecessary use of antibiotics in their meat and poultry supply.
Medical experts say the overuse of antibiotics in livestock poses a public health threat by increasing the spread of deadly drug-resistant bacteria.
The 16 restaurants petitioned by the organizations received “F” grades for failing to take steps to end the misuse of medical important antibiotics in the Chain Reaction scorecard, a report published by the Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, Friends of the Earth, NRDC and Food Animals Concerns Trust.
A statement from the coalition this week says Burger King received an F and, despite an announcement in December to make certain changes regarding antibiotics in the chicken supply chain, still lags far behind McDonald’s.
McDonald’s has removed medically important antibiotics from its chicken supply chain, but Burger King has committed to removing only limited group of antibiotics classified as “critically important” to human medicine, by the end of 2017.
“The global increase in antibiotic-resistant infections is a public health disaster, and it is essential that our biggest restaurant chains do their part to address this growing problem right away,” said Cameron Harsh of the Center for Food Safety.
The petition effort is the latest in a series of campaigns intended to pressure such companies as KFC, Olive Garden, Chili’s and Starbucks to help protect public health and animal welfare by committing to meat and poultry raised without routine antibiotics.
The performance of these companies contrasts sharply with nine of the largest chains — including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Chipotle and Panera, which received passing grades in the report.
“KFC and the other restaurants that received failing grades are making our antibiotics crisis worse,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, the policy division of Consumer Reports. “Antibiotics should only be used to treat disease, not wasted on healthy animals or to compensate for filthy conditions on factory farms. It’s time for restaurants to help protect public health by demanding that their suppliers end the irresponsible use of these important medications.”
“When consumers eat a chicken sandwich they shouldn’t have to worry that doing so is potentially undermining antibiotics. They should just enjoy the sandwich,” said Matthew Wellington, field director of the antibiotics program for U.S. PIRG. “More major chains like KFC need to act on antibiotics. We simply cannot afford to lose the foundations of modern medicine.”
Consumer advocacy and food safety groups say that in the absence of mandatory government regulations on agricultural uses of antibiotics in the United States, restaurants should demonstrate their commitment to public health by ending the misuse of antibiotics in their meat and poultry supply chains.
Some background on the issue…
Most meat served by U.S. chain restaurants comes from animals raised in factory farms. The animals often are fed antibiotics to prevent diseases that occur in crowded, unsanitary living conditions and also to promote faster growth.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, regularly dosing animals with antibiotics contributes to rising cases of infections in humans that are resistant to important medicines.
The spread of resistant pathogens means that infections are harder to treat, require longer hospitalizations, and pose greater risk of death. World Health Organization reports that “antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today.”
Minnesota’s first-in-the nation ban on soaps containing the once ubiquitous germ-killer triclosan takes effect Jan. 1, but the people who spearheaded the law say it’s already having its desired effect on a national level.
The federal government caught up to Minnesota’s 2014 decision with its own ban that takes effect in September 2017. Major manufacturers have largely phased out the chemical already, with some products being marketed as triclosan-free.
And it’s an example of how changes can start at a local level.
“I wanted it to change the national situation with triclosan and it certainly has contributed to that,” said state Sen. John Marty, an author of Minnesota’s ban.
Triclosan once was widely used in anti-bacterial soaps, deodorants and even toothpaste. But studies began to show it could disrupt sex and thyroid hormones and other bodily functions, and scientists were concerned routine use could contribute to the development of resistant bacteria. And University of Minnesota research found that triclosan can break down into potentially harmful dioxins in lakes and rivers.
The group Friends of the Mississippi River and its allies in the Legislature, including Marty, got Gov. Mark Dayton to sign a ban in 2014 that gave the industry until Jan. 1, 2017, to comply.
In September, the FDA banned triclosan along with 18 other anti-bacterial chemicals from soaps nationwide, saying manufacturers had failed to show they were safe or more effective at killing germs than plain soap and water. However, the FDA allowed the use of some triclosan products such as Colgate Total toothpaste, saying it’s effective at preventing gingivitis.
Marty and Trevor Russell, the water program director for Friends of the Mississippi River, acknowledged they can’t take direct credit for the FDA’s action because that rulemaking process began in 1978, though it didn’t finalize the rule until after a legal battle with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
However, the Minnesota men hope their efforts helped turn opinions against the chemical and are confident the state’s ban helped prod manufacturers to accelerate a phase-out that some companies such as Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson had already begun.
Most major brands are now reformulated, said Brian Sansoni, spokesman for the American Cleaning Institute, a lobbying group. Soaps containing triclosan on store shelves are likely stocks that retailers are just using up, he said.
Russell noted he recently found Dial liquid anti-bacterial hand soap at two local Wal-Marts, two supermarkets and a Walgreens.
The industry is now submitting data to the FDA on the safety and effectiveness of the three main replacements, benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride and chloroxylenol.
“Consumers can continue to use these products with confidence, like they always have,” Sansoni said.
By going first, Russell said, Minnesota can identify any issues with implementing the ban and share it with the rest of the country.
The Minnesota Department of Health will remind consumers and businesses of the ban’s start.
Illinois has a new law requiring stylists in the state to be trained in domestic violence support and response.
The law will take effect Jan. 1.
Pin-Up Hair Studio stylist Jamie Feramisco in Quincy, Illinois, said hairdressers sometimes learn about incidents of domestic violence through chatting with clients.
She said she often hears accounts of domestic violence in her salon and that she tries to support women facing such circumstances.
The mandate was passed as an amendment to the Barber, Cosmetology, Hair Braiding and Nail Technology Act of 1985.
The legislation aligns the Professional Beauty Association’s Cut It Out program, which pushes similar efforts.
“The salon is a safe place to go. People tell their stylists things they don’t even tell their family or friends,” PBA Director of Charitable Programs Rachel Molepske said. “We have gotten testimonials from people that said this program saved them.”
Feramisco said she plans to host a training session at the salon once the state has established a curriculum.
“The whole idea is to help hairdressers deal with disclosures. There is a right way and a wrong way to talk to someone. It can make or break the way a person handles their assault,” Quanada Prevention Educator JJ Magliocco said. “We are teaching them that they can make a difference. They don’t have to keep their mouth shut.”
A new analysis shows the lead poisoning level for children in Wisconsin is lower than in recent years, but is nearly as high as Flint, Michigan, where lead contamination caused a drinking water crisis.
Wisconsin Public Radio reports that the analysis released this week by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families includes data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services that shows 4.6 percent of children under the age of 6 who were tested in 2015 had lead poisoning. The rate in Flint was 4.9 percent.
Analysis author Leland Pan said the state’s rate of lead poisoning among children is a serious issue because it can negatively affect a child’s development.
“Lead poisoning is correlated with increased rates of learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, it hampers with brain development, it’s correlated with increased aggression and juvenile incarceration,” Pan said.
The report suggests that many children are exposed to lead-based paints in older homes. The state also has at least 176,000 lead service lines that carry drinking water to homes and businesses.
A disproportionate number of African-American children living in Wisconsin were also diagnosed with lead poisoning. The analysis referenced 2014 data from the Wisconsin DHS that showed 10 percent of the 16,221 black children under 6 who were tested had lead poisoning. Out of the 27,984 white children who were tested, only 2.9 percent had high blood lead levels.
The analysis provides recommendations for prevention, such as increased state supporting for public health departments and providing funding to restore accountability initiatives to increase the number of children tested for lead.
A controversial frac sand mining company that recently opened a site in Wisconsin is facing opposition to plans for a sevenfold expansion of its underground mine in Clayton County, Iowa.
Pattison Sand Co. has requested rezoning of 746 acres of land from agricultural to heavy industrial for eventual expansion of its underground mine from its current size of about 100 acres. The site, which includes surface mining on some of its 1,600 acres, lies along the Mississippi River directly across from Bagley, Wisconsin. Many of its roughly 150 employees live in southwestern Wisconsin.
Since Pattison Sand’s Clayton County site began operations in 2005, it has racked up more workplace violations than any other industrial sand mine in the United States, according to data from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) analyzed by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Among the violations is a 2008 accident in which a front-end loader with a defective rear-view mirror backed over a worker, killing her.
Patrick O’Shaughnessy, a professor of occupational and environmental health in the University of Iowa engineering college, told members of a county committee studying expansion on April 28 in Elkader, Iowa, that it would be wise to review the mine’s record and reputation when considering the proposal.
“There are good apples and there are bad apples in every industry, from swine rearing to sand mining,” O’Shaughnessy told the committee before a crowd of more than 60 people. “Is this someone who has flagrant violations constantly, or is this someone who’s typically got a good sense of safety for their workers, environmental consciousness, and they want to be a good neighbor?”
Nevertheless, O’Shaughnessy told members of the Mine Reserve Expansion Study Committee that residents living around the proposed expansion face a low risk of inhaling airborne silica particles from the mine. Inhaling silica can cause silicosis, an irreversible and sometimes fatal lung disease that can lead to cancer and tuberculosis.
The mine produces sand for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves injecting water, fine-grained sand and chemicals at high pressure to break apart underground rock and release trapped oil and natural gas.
History of violations
According to the Center’s analysis, between April 2005 and January of this year, Pattison Sand’s site in Clayton County had 934 MSHA violations for which the company paid $279,000 in fines. Wedron Silica Co. in Illinois — the industrial sand mine with the second most violations in that time period — received 501 violations.
According to the data, little has changed since a 2013 Wall Street Journal analysis found that mining safety officials had cited Pattison Sand more than any other sand or gravel mine in the country. Among the violations identified by the Center, 235 were racked up since January 2013.
In addition, the Center found that 55 Pattison Sand employees have filed workers’ compensation claims for injuries sustained at the Iowa location between 2005 and January of this year. Claims include fractures, dislocations, sprains, hernias and heat prostration. Two of the claims were filed for respiratory problems.
In an interview, Christopher Hensler, district manager for MSHA’s north central district, said the regulatory agency’s inspectors have spent a lot of time at Pattison Sand’s Iowa site, but the sheer number of violations does not necessarily indicate a larger problem.
“The bulk of their violations are very simple electrical violations and defects of equipment that affect safety,” he said.
One 2008 violation involving defects of equipment, however, resulted in a fatality. In that incident, a front-end loader backed up, striking and killing a worker. MSHA’s investigation report found the accident was caused in part by the equipment’s defective rear-view mirror and the lack of visible reflective material on the employee. Pattison Sand was fined $70,000 for that violation.
A 2014 fire and multiple roof collapses in 2011 also generated violations that resulted in temporary shutdowns. The collapses and an ensuing legal battle shuttered the underground portion of the mine for several months in 2011 and 2012.
Other infractions at Pattison Sand’s Iowa site include exposing workers to harmful airborne contaminants, failing to have protective equipment and clothing, and neglecting to provide at least two escapeways to the surface in the mine.
Andy Garcia-Rivera, a former industrial hygiene compliance officer for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said although mines do tend to have many violations, the number of infractions Pattison Sand’s Iowa location has amassed is “unusual.”
“It tells me that there’s something wrong,” said Garcia-Rivera, who also directed environmental, health and safety compliance for the University Wisconsin-Madison campus. “Sometimes employers do take shortcuts.”
Official defends company record
Tim Adkins, who joined Pattison Sand 14 months ago as its health and safety director, said after the April 28 meeting that claiming Pattison Sand’s record is the worst in the industry is a “terrible, terrible, misconception” and an “out-of-context statement to make.” He attributed some of the past violations to lack of experience by the Pattison family, who used to store and ship grain from the underground caverns that are now mined.
“When they (Pattison Sand) went into the mining industry, they didn’t know about the mining industry. They’d never dealt with MSHA. They didn’t know MSHA regulations,” said Adkins, who has over 40 years of experience as a health and safety professional, including over 35 years in mining.
Adkins added that underground mines such as Pattison Sand’s generate more violations because they are inspected twice as often as surface mines, four times a year versus two.
“Pattison Sand is a good player, good operator,” Adkins said. “They care about their employees, they take extra steps to go above and beyond MSHA requirements, MSHA standards.”
But even when compared to other similar underground mines, Pattison’s track record is not stellar. In 2010, 2011 and 2014, the company’s Iowa mine had above-average rates among underground metal and nonmetal mines of violations deemed “significant and substantial” by MSHA. Data prior to 2010 were not available.
Adkins said Pattison Sand works very closely with MSHA to ensure compliance. That was not always the case.
In 2011, Pattison Sand sued the agency after it shut down the majority of the underground mine following multiple roof collapses, including one in which at least 30 tons of rock fell onto an excavator; the miner operating it was unhurt. The lawsuit and appeals kept the underground part of the mine closed for several months.
Besides Pattison’s Iowa mine, MSHA lists only two other underground industrial sand mines in the country. Both are located in Pierce County, Wisconsin, and operated by the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Co. Since 2005, one of the mines has received 279 violations — a fraction of the number racked up by Pattison. The other, operating only since 2008, has received 127 violations.
Opponents continue to fight
At the April 28 meeting in Elkader, 37 people submitted comments raising questions about Pattison Sand’s record of MSHA violations, burning at the company’s Iowa site, workers’ respiratory problems, conflicting results of air quality studies and dust.
Kathy Kachel, who attended the meeting, blames Pattison Sand’s Iowa mine for the white sand she dusts inside her house. She lives in Bagley and can see the facility from her porch. Kachel would like to see it shut down.
“There is a proliferation of silica (sand) at this point for fracking,” Kachel said. “It’s not healthy for anybody — the environment, the wildlife, my grandchildren.”
In Wisconsin, Pattison Sand operates a surface mine in Bridgeport, about a 30-minute drive northeast of its Iowa site. Four Bridgeport residents and the Crawford Stewardship Project, an environmental group that promotes sustainability and local control of natural resources, tried unsuccessfully to block that mine. Its status is currently listed as “intermittent” based on the number of hours worked at the site.
Since it began operating in August 2013, the Bridgeport mine has received seven violations for which the company paid $824 in fines. Those violations include failing to notify MSHA before starting operations, neglecting to prepare a material safety data sheet for each hazardous chemical the mine uses or produces, failing to provide first aid materials, and failing to provide safe means of access to travelways.
Garcia-Rivera said violations at mines that are not yet fully operational, such as Pattison Sand’s Bridgeport site, are to be expected. MSHA is only required to inspect such intermittent surface mines once a year. The mine expansion committee plans to meet again on Wednesday.
Digital and multimedia director Coburn Dukehart contributed to this report. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.
Hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin residents are at risk of illness from waterborne pathogens in private and public drinking water supplies
Late on a winter night in 2004 in Kewaunee County, six-month-old Samantha Treml was rushed to an emergency room, violently ill from bathing in water poisoned by manure spread on a nearby frozen field that seeped into the home’s private well. The rest of her family got sick, too.
In 2014, seven people visiting Door County were sickened after manure from a large farm made its way into a home’s private water well.
In 2015, Kewaunee County Board member Chuck Wagner discovered that the new $10,000 well he was forced to install two years earlier was again contaminated with viruses and cow manure. Wagner and his wife now use a reverse osmosis system to filter the water before drinking or cooking while they contemplate whether to dig a second new well.
And this year, the Algoma School District is offering free water to residents whose wells are contaminated, although that source has been shut down a few times after vandals damaged the dispenser. In early March, a group of local residents asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to provide emergency water for Kewaunee County residents with contaminated drinking water.
“It’s astonishing, the number of people who can’t use their drinking water,” said Algoma School District Superintendent Nick Cochart, whose own well is polluted.
Between 2007 and 2010, an estimated 18 percent of 3,868 private wells in Wisconsin tested positive for coliform bacteria — an indicator of disease-causing bacteria, viruses or parasites — according to a 2013 study by researchers with the state Department of Health Services. That translates into as many as 169,200 of the 940,000 Wisconsin households served by private wells exposed to disease-causing pathogens.
The problem also plagues municipal water systems where coliform bacteria accounts for most of the violations of health standards recorded each year. The 2014 Department of Natural Resources drinking water report on the state’s public water systems found 3.7 percent, or 420 of the 11,420 systems, had detectable levels of coliform.
The report said those 420 systems serve about 92,290 people. Most of the violations, 351, were in small public water systems serving motels, restaurants, churches and campgrounds.
Contamination by pathogens is of special concern because unlike pollution by metals or chemicals, pathogens can sicken people after just a single exposure. The gastrointestinal illnesses that result can be life-threatening for people with weakened immune systems such as the sick, elderly and infants.
Pathogens such as bacteria, viruses and parasites are the most frequent causes of illnesses in private water systems, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Whether it was manure spread irresponsibly on a frozen field, a septic system compromised by pollution-prone geology or untreated municipal drinking water, incidents of pathogens in drinking water in Wisconsin have revealed weaknesses in government oversight of this most basic and necessary resource, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found.
Committees formed as a result of contamination in Kewaunee County recently proposed steps to be taken by the DNR, state lawmakers and others to better protect Wisconsin’s drinking water from agricultural pollution.
These work groups, composed of farmers and residents and federal, state and local officials, were formed after Kewaunee County residents petitioned the EPA in 2014 for help with the county’s water problems.
The recommendations included $300,000 to provide “reparations,” including emergency safe water supplies, treatment systems and new wells for households whose drinking water has been contaminated by livestock manure. Other proposals included voluntary restrictions on spreading manure on sensitive lands, additional staff, heightened oversight and more timely response and enforcement to complaints by the DNR.
George Althoff, DNR spokesman, said the agency is “actively working on formulating short-term and long-term plans to address water quality issues in Kewaunee County.” He added that “this has been and is a priority for the agency.”
“I think we’re making progress,” agreed Russ Rasmussen, a DNR natural resource manager who is coordinating the Kewaunee County effort.
But some residents and others remain skeptical that the DNR will take meaningful action, and they criticize the agency for taking too long to address what some are calling a crisis.
In March, Midwest Environmental Advocates, the public interest law firm that petitioned the EPA on behalf of Kewaunee County residents, shot off another letter to the agency slamming the lack of progress, saying there still has been no “direct action to provide local residents with clean, reliable drinking water.”
The delayed response to the region’s drinking water problems also has attracted the attention of U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin. Baldwin in March sent a letter to the heads of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the EPA requesting “immediate attention to this urgent public health issue and your assistance in making safe drinking water options available as soon as possible.”
One-third of wells unsafe
Recent testing funded by the DNR and carried out by the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh showed the extent of the problem in Kewaunee County, with more than one-third of the 320 wells tested found unsafe to use. Those 110 wells had unsafe levels of coliform, E. coli or nitrate.
Any amount of coliform is considered unsafe. Of the wells found to be unsafe by the DNR testing, 27 percent had coliform; and five wells, or 2 percent, were contaminated by E. coli, which can come from human or animal waste. The second phase of the study will show the exact source of the pollutants.
Wagner discovered in the most recent round of testing that his new well — which he built in 2013 to replace an old contaminated well — is now tainted by four bovine viruses as well as nitrate.
Wagner, who served for 10 years on the state’s Land and Water Conservation Board, said he is convinced clean water and agriculture can exist side by side, but he and other residents are tired of what they say is inaction by the DNR.
“We’re getting mad,” Wagner said.
As for the Tremls, the family eventually was awarded an $80,000 settlement from the insurance company for Stahl Farms, which spread the manure that sent Samantha, now 12, to the hospital. Judy Treml said her family moved to Green Bay over concerns that the water in heavily farmed Kewaunee County is unsafe. The farm also paid a $50,000 fine to the state for violating its DNR permit.
Treml said she believes her family’s move away from Kewaunee County was the right decision.
“This past summer several families had wells that were contaminated because of malfunctions at a farm manure lagoon,” she said. “In Kewaunee County, the problems have gotten even more horrific. In 10 years, it hasn’t improved at all.”
Big farms, big waste
Kewaunee County is home to 20,574 people and 76,000 cows, according to county data. It has one of Wisconsin’s highest concentrations of large dairy farms, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs. Such farms, which have up to 8,000 head of cattle, can produce as much feces as a city, and most of it ends up on nearby farm fields.
Kewaunee County’s 16 CAFOs contribute the bulk of the more than 555 million gallons of liquid manure that are spread on the county’s fields each year, county figures show.
The likelihood that manure from such large farms will contain one or more pathogens is “very high,” according to the EPA, because of the sheer number of animals housed in such operations.
Manure is a veritable stew of more than 150 pathogens that can make people sick, according to a report from the National Association of Local Boards of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
These pathogens include E. coli, Salmonella, Giardia and Cryptosporidium. All can cause severe diarrhea and can be deadly for those with weakened immune systems. Infants and young children, pregnant women, the elderly, people who are HIV-positive and those who have undergone chemotherapy — about 20 percent of the U.S. population — are most at risk.
Proposals aim to improve water
Legislation aimed at bolstering protections against manure pollution in areas with fractured bedrock, such as Kewaunee County, was introduced by Democratic lawmakers in January.
“We are dealing with a public health crisis,” said state Rep. Eric Genrich, D-Green Bay, who co-authored the bill with state Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay. “We have communities in northeast Wisconsin where half of the wells that are tested are contaminated and the water is undrinkable, where residents no longer have access to safe, clean drinking water. That is not acceptable.”
The bill did not advance in the Republican-controlled Legislature. State Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, called it a “political stunt.” He said it was not a serious effort because Hansen and Genrich did not consult him or other Republicans.
In the meantime, Kitchens has introduced a bill of his own that would raise the maximum household income from $60,000 to $90,000 under the Well Compensation Grant Program, which helps owners pay for replacement of wells contaminated by livestock feces. But he acknowledged the change is not a solution to the pollution problems.
Three counties — Brown, Manitowoc and Kewaunee — have acted on their own, passing ordinances that prohibit winter manure spreading or restrict spreading on land with porous bedrock. One of the Kewaunee County work groups formed after residents petitioned the EPA for help has proposed a number of restrictions on spreading manure, including a ban on spreading where bedrock is covered by less than 24 inches of soil.
Kewaunee County’s ordinance passed in the face of strong opposition from the Dairy Business Association, the Midwest Food Producers Association and other agriculture groups. They contend the county does not have the authority to pass such limits, which they say are unnecessary because the state DNR already regulates groundwater.
But a study of the new county regulations, published in 2015 in the journal Resources, concluded the rules have caused “statistically significant reductions” in well contamination compared to other counties with fractured bedrock that only offered voluntary education on best practices to farmers and manure spreaders. The study showed no improvement in those counties.
Tim Trotter, executive director of the DBA, the state’s most powerful dairy lobby, said dairy farmers are serious about ensuring clean and safe water. But owners of some large-scale farms insist more research is needed. They say any new state regulations also must take into account the impact on agriculture.
“I think with any new rules there should be a balance between safety and being practical,” said John Pagel, who owns a large dairy farm and serves on the Kewaunee County Board, chairing the Land and Water Conservation Committee. “We need to keep working together to make sure farming practices are done the right way and at the same time set goals that are achievable.”
Lee Luft, a Kewaunee County Board member who is part of the DNR work groups, said residents will be watching the agency’s actions closely.
“If these recommendations are not implemented,” he said, “my sense is that whatever remaining confidence the residents have in the DNR will evaporate.”
Dangerously high contamination
Many users of private wells may be ingesting pathogens unknowingly because, according to the state health department, only about 16 percent of owners statewide have them tested.
The Tremls tested their private water well after Samantha and other members of the family got sick. The astronomically high levels of contamination caused the county to advise the family to shut off the water and get the children out of the house.
The E. coli count in the Treml well was 2,800 parts per milliliter and the coliform count was 9,800. The EPA considers any amount of E. coli to be dangerous.
The Tremls later discovered the DNR had allowed a neighboring farmer to spread liquid manure on frozen land next to their home after the farmer ran out of storage space. Manure spread on frozen ground can run off into surface water and get into the drinking water supply.
Judy Treml had hoped their ordeal would spur the DNR to action. That did not happen.
“It does make me angry,” Treml said. “I thought they would use our case to learn how to avoid these issues altogether.”
Groups charge DNR regulation lax
The DNR’s seeming reluctance to address concerns about pollution from the big farms is not new, according to an April 2015 investigation by a group called the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, based in the state of Oregon. The group’s “Rap Sheets” report documented a lack of DNR enforcement on large-scale farms in Kewaunee County going back to the mid-1980s.
Using the DNR’s own records, the group uncovered dozens of instances in which large dairy farms violated anti-pollution laws. It found cases including overapplication of manure, failure to report spills, failure to maintain adequate storage, and spreading manure too close to homes and waterways — incidents in which DNR records do not show follow-up to ensure problems were corrected.
The agency disputed the report — saying it was enforcing the law to its fullest authority — but allegations of lax regulation continued to surface.
In October, Midwest Environmental Advocates filed another petition, this time on behalf of 16 residents from across Wisconsin, asking the EPA to rescind the state’s authority to enforce discharge permits under the Clean Water Act if changes are not forthcoming.
And in December, 45 former DNR employees, many with decades of experience, supported that petition in a letter to the EPA. Among the concerns they cited was lax enforcement against polluters, including CAFOs.
Cochart, Algoma’s school superintendent, said he is fed up with delays by DNR in getting help to county residents. “All they do is drag their feet,” he said.
“Somebody needs to provide clean water. The DNR certainly isn’t,” Cochart added. “To me, it’s a basic human right to have clean drinking water. But there are a lot of people here who are spending a lot of money to have clean water.”
Luft, the Kewaunee County Board member, said the high levels of lead in drinking water that plagued Flint, Michigan, are reminiscent of problems in his county.
“It brought home the fact to me that we have a very substantial number of people living without access to safe water,” Luft said. “They live a second-class lifestyle because of it.”
This report was produced as part of journalism classes participating in The Confluence, a collaborative project involving the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.
Today is World Water Day and this year’s theme is “Water and Jobs.”
Never has that focus been more critical. Living in a city that has direct access to 20 percent of our world’s surface freshwater in the Great Lakes, Milwaukee is uniquely positioned to appreciate and celebrate the benefits of abundant, clean water to our economy and our quality of life.
Water pollution threatens drinking water resources, tourism dollars and commerce. The tragedy that unfolded in Flint, Michigan, is emblematic of just how much failing to invest in infrastructure can cost a community, with economic damages alone predicted to exceed $10 million not including health effects that will cost Flint and it’s citizens for decades.
Despite having access to an excellent water source in Lake Michigan, we are facing our own struggles in Milwaukee.
The city has halted 5 miles of water replacement projects this year due to concerns that this work could cause elevated lead levels in many older homes that have lead lateral pipes, which deliver drinking water to our homes from city sewers.
The city estimates that it could cost the city and 70,000 residential property owners up to $511 million or more to remove and replace all lead pipes.
Similarly, investment needs for the nation’s wastewater and stormwater systems are estimated to total $298 billion over the next twenty years.
The good news is we can fix many of these problems — it’s not rocket science, it’s plumbing.
As we look at how to reduce pollution to our precious waterways, it’s also important to look at proactive solutions — solutions that create jobs as well as a clean water future. In the U.S., every $1 billion invested in water infrastructure is estimated to create more than 20,000 new jobs.
Investment in water infrastructure programs creates these jobs through the replacement and upgrade of pipelines and treatment plants and the installation of green infrastructure projects.
The time is now to find innovative funding sources and solution to address our old and failing water infrastructure.
This World Water Day, as we reflect on our most pressing water related issues, we should also look toward the future. Investment in jobs that create pollution solutions is essential for preserving our most precious resource and bettering our community for generations to come.
World Water Day on the Web
Cheryl Nenn is riverkeeper with Milwaukee Riverkeeper. Milwaukee Riverkeeper works to protect water quality and wildlife habitat in the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic River Watersheds. Riverkeeper is a part of the international Waterkeeper Alliance, made up of 282 watchdog organizations on six continents, employing 934 people advocating full-time for clean water and healthy communities.
For the past six years, Michael Schnur and his family have been drinking bottled water. Already concerned that pollutants from the coal ash landfill near his home in Sheboygan County might be leaching into his private well, Schnur became even more fearful last year when he received a letter from the state Department of Health Services. It warned that elevated levels of a little-known, unregulated element — strontium — were found in his drinking water.
In follow-up email correspondence, the DHS said the landfill was not impacting Schnur’s water and that strontium occurs naturally in the groundwater. Schnur was advised to install a water softener, which works by replacing minerals like calcium, magnesium and strontium with sodium.
“I have a new baby (coming) in a couple months, which is why it’s really nerve-wracking,” Schnur said last spring. A healthy baby girl, Sophia, was born in August.
Schnur, who acknowledges he is no expert on water issues, remains on alert. His family continues to drink bottled water.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has made a preliminary decision to begin regulating strontium.
However, in January, the agency delayed a final decision in order to collect additional information. The EPA wants to determine, among other things, whether treatment systems that remove strontium also would remove beneficial calcium, potentially making the effects of strontium on bones and teeth even worse.
EPA data from 2013 to 2015 suggest that some public water systems in eastern Wisconsin contain among the highest levels of strontium found anywhere in the country. Nationwide testing showed 73 of the 100 highest readings came from Wisconsin in communities including Waukesha, Brookfield, Germantown, Kaukauna, Wrightstown and Fond du Lac.
The EPA has set 4 milligrams of strontium per liter of water as the lifetime health advisory limit — in other words, the maximum level that anyone should routinely consume — and 25 mg/L as the short-term health advisory limit, meaning no one should consume that amount of strontium at any time.
Twenty-nine of the results found in the EPA testing in Wisconsin exceeded the EPA’s 25 mg/L short-term health advisory limit. The highest level found in that round of testing was 53 mg/L in Germantown in 2013.
The level of strontium detected in Schnur’s well, 7.2 mg/L, is what DHS toxicologist Roy Irving described as “middle of the pack.”
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay geoscience professor John Luczaj said if the EPA confirms 4 mg/L as an enforceable maximum contaminant level, that would be a “big deal.” According to a study released in June by Luczaj and Kevin Masarik, a groundwater education specialist at the Center for Watershed Science and Education at UW-Stevens Point, strontium is present in the deep aquifer “throughout much of eastern Wisconsin.”
Hundreds of wells throughout the region are affected, including many municipal wells from the suburban Milwaukee metropolitan area north to Green Bay, they found. Particularly high levels were found in parts of Brown, Outagamie and Calumet counties, Luczaj and Masarik wrote.
Luczaj said that while water softeners and reverse osmosis systems can remove strontium, he does not believe that municipal water system customers can be forced to buy expensive treatment systems in order to safely drink their water.
Health effects unclear
As a currently unregulated contaminant, strontium is still a public health mystery. Limited studies suggest, however, that exposure to strontium at elevated levels could affect infants, children and young adults, as it mimics calcium and is absorbed by their developing bones.
Possible health effects from exposure to high levels of strontium range from “strontium rickets” — in which bones are shorter and more dense than normal — to other tooth and bone deformities, according to a Wisconsin DHS fact sheet.
The EPA said certain populations are more sensitive to strontium’s harmful effects, including people with calcium deficiencies, kidney conditions and Paget’s disease.
Bud and Vicky Harris have taken precautions against contaminants in their well water in the home where they have lived for nearly 20 years in the town of Lawrence near De Pere. He is a retired UW-Green Bay professor of natural and applied sciences and she retired from her job as a water quality specialist based in Green Bay for UW-Madison’s Sea Grant Institute.
It is good they took action. A test in 2012 showed 28 mg/L of strontium in the water coming into their home — above the maximum short-term exposure limit recommended by the EPA. A 2013 test showed 22 mg/L, slightly below that limit.
Soon after moving into their home, the Harrises installed a water softener, iron removal system and reverse osmosis system because they were aware of local drinking water problems, especially arsenic. Vicky Harris said the couple has spent thousands of dollars on water treatment systems to remove contaminants.
“For us, it’s worthwhile. Water is health. Water is everything,” she said.
Vicky Harris wonders about the untreated water their son drank from a private well in Allouez near Green Bay before they moved to their current home when he was 8 years old. Their son has mottled enamel on his teeth, which she said could be related to the fluoride also present in the Green Bay area.
Strontium levels high
Some samples collected from public water systems in Washington and Waukesha counties turned up strontium concentrations as high as 53 and 37 mg/L, respectively, well above both the short- and long-term advisory levels set by the EPA.
Still, exactly what this means for people living in affected areas is not yet clear.
In calculating safe concentrations, the EPA considers body weight, drinking water intake and the level of exposure to a contaminant believed to be from drinking water, along with an estimate of the level of daily exposure from other sources. Irving explained that it is important to note that these factors differ among people, as does their nutritional status.
“There are a lot of things that promote healthy bones, things like calcium, vitamin D,” Irving said. “Those all counter-balance risks from strontium.”
Said Luczaj: “Strontium is important, especially if you have young children. But if it’s just a little above the lifetime value, I wouldn’t worry about it. Unless the strontium is very high, I wouldn’t worry about it.”
When Schnur received notice of the elevated level of strontium in his well water, it reaffirmed his decision to keep using bottled water.
“I just don’t trust people when it comes to water. I really don’t,” Schnur said.
One of the reasons people may become alarmed when they find strontium in their water is the prominence of its radioactive relative, strontium-90, which is associated with above-ground nuclear testing. But it is naturally occurring strontium, which is not radioactive, that is found in Wisconsin.
Where high concentrations were found in places including Cedarburg, Germantown and Kiel, water utility managers there said more than 90 percent of homes already have water softeners. It is unclear, however, how many people are drinking the softened water, which some people avoid because it has added sodium. While drinking softened water is not considered harmful for most healthy adults, people on sodium-restricted diets are advised to consider other options.
Brookfield Water Utility Superintendent Mark Simon said most of his water customers already have water softeners. He said some people also have reverse osmosis systems, which force water through a semipermeable membrane to remove dissolved salts and contaminants.
Strontium problem centered on eastern Wisconsin
The samples from public water systems in Brookfield and others around the country were collected as part of the EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule program.
Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the agency is required to decide whether to regulate at least five unregulated contaminants every five years. The act sets mandatory standards for public water systems.
Previous studies have estimated that strontium occurs at levels of concern in 7 percent of public water systems in the country. That information, coupled with the knowledge of its potential health effects, led the EPA to make a preliminary decision in 2014 to begin developing strontium regulation.
Before the EPA began collecting data in 2013, however, Luczaj, the UW-Green Bay professor, conducted a regional study of wells, focused on Brown and Outagamie counties, to map the distribution of strontium in the eastern part of the state and determine its source.
In his paper published in 2015, Luczaj found high levels of strontium in “an arc-shaped band through eastern Wisconsin from suburban Milwaukee up through Brown, Outagamie, Calumet, Door, Oconto and Marinette counties.”
Although Luczaj does not consider strontium to be among the most significant groundwater contaminants, he said it is something people should know about. He emphasized the state’s top water quality concerns are bacteria and nitrate, with up to half of the wells tested above health standards in some counties.
“Strontium’s probably more of a long-term issue, especially for children, but for adults it’s probably not as significant of a problem,” Luczaj said. “But we don’t know because there hasn’t been a lot of work on it.”
Geology affects strontium
Luczaj said strontium is present in such high levels in certain areas of Wisconsin because of the presence of a particular type of bedrock stretching from Illinois to Upper Michigan along the eastern part of the state.
Sometime between 200 million and 400 million years ago, water moved out of the deep sedimentary rock in Michigan into aquifers in Wisconsin.
That “precipitated a bunch of different minerals in different locations,” Luczaj said. “One of the minerals was strontium sulfate, called celestium, and that’s the mineral that is dissolving and causing the strontium problem.”
Other inorganic contaminants, such as arsenic and fluoride, are also related to the same water-rock interaction. Where they turn up depends on the chemistry in particular areas of the state. Luczaj said arsenic contamination in drinking water is further west, where oxidation is taking place, while strontium is farther east, where dissolution is happening.
Few concerns over strontium
Irving, the DHS toxicologist, shared Luczaj’s opinion that strontium “is not a concern for most people.”
“The groups of people that we might be a little more concerned about are life stages where kids’ … bones are developing,” Irving said. “And that’s just based off the animal studies that have shown that strontium maybe can affect bone development, but at a very high amount.”
Whatever the danger might be, aside from a select few residents, there does not seem to be much concern about strontium from members of the public.
Since Luczaj’s study was published and covered by local media, Brown County Public Health Sanitarian Marty Adams said he has only received a call or two.
“I think a lot of people just don’t understand what it is and therefore not a lot of questions have developed about it,” Adams said.
Tests of Adams’ own well water have uncovered levels of strontium between 16 and 17 mg/L, far above the EPA’s long-term health advisory level of 4 mg/L. Due to the high levels of fluoride present when Adams’ well was drilled 20 years ago, he already had a reverse osmosis system and water softener installed.
The concern is for “those that are not using softeners or reverse osmosis or distilled water or some other type of treatment that would take it out,” Adams said.
Adams emphasized that for private wells, it is up to individual homeowners to have their water tested. One resource is the State Laboratory of Hygiene. A test for heavy metals, including strontium, lead, arsenic, manganese and other elements, costs $60.
People drinking municipal water may also want to do testing, as the EPA is not likely to begin regulating strontium anytime soon.
While Schnur has tried to get his neighbors to test their water, he said the interest just has not been there.
“I just wanted people to be notified of it — that there were high levels of strontium — and it doesn’t seem like anyone really cares,” Schnur said. “Each to their own. I’m just going to make sure my family’s safe.”
Reporters Silke Schmidt and Dee J. Hall contributed to this report. This story was produced as part of The Confluence, a collaborative project involving the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication reporting classes. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.
Failure at the Faucet
Failure at the Faucet, a yearlong investigation by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, found that hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin residents are at risk of consuming drinking water tainted with substances including lead, nitrate, disease-causing bacteria and viruses, naturally occurring chemicals such as arsenic, and other contaminants.
The problem persists, and in some areas is worsening, because of flawed agricultural practices, development patterns that damage water quality, geologic deposits of harmful chemicals, porous karst and sand landscapes, lack of regulation of the private wells serving an estimated 1.7 million people, and breakdowns in state and federal systems intended to safeguard water quality.
Safeguarding your drinking water: What you can do
Wisconsin residents can take a number of steps to make sure their drinking water is safe. Here are a few suggestions:
If you live in one of the 940,000 households in Wisconsin that rely on a private well, have your water tested or test it yourself. The state Department of Natural Resources recommends getting your well tested once a year for coliform bacteria and any time you notice a change in how your water looks, smells or tastes. Check with your county health department on what contaminants may be found in your area and for which you might also want to test.
You can get more information on testing from the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, including details on how to obtain testing kits and the costs of various tests. The test for coliform bacteria, for example, costs $29, as do the tests for lead and nitrate.
For those using municipal water, get the consumer confidence report from your local water utility. Or you can access the reports on the DNR’s database of public water systems. Also, find out if your utility disinfects for viruses or uses corrosion control to help keep lead out of pipes.
If your home was built before 1984, consider having it assessed for lead in the water. While pre-1950 homes often have lead service pipes, some homes built before 1984 may have lead solder on the pipes or fixtures that contain lead. Consult the DNR website for safer ways to use water that may contain lead.
Consider a filter for your water. But make sure that the filter you choose is effective for removing the specific contaminants that are in your water. The University of Wisconsin-Extension website has advice on which to choose.
The Snyder administration quietly trucked in water to state buildings in January of 2015 — 10 months prior to when the governor publicly admitting there was reason for concern in Flint, according to a document obtained by Progress Michigan.
The document is a Facility Notification sent by the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget in response to poor water quality in Flint.
The notification stated that water coolers were being installed on each occupied floor next to the drinking fountains so that state workers could choose to continue to drink Flint water or a safe alternative.
“It appears the state wasn’t as slow as we first thought in responding the Flint Water Crisis. Sadly, the only response was to protect the Snyder administration from future liability and not to protect the children of Flint from lead poisoning,” said Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan. “While residents were being told to relax and not worry about the water, the Snyder administration was taking steps to limit exposure in its own building.”
An email chain connected to the document shows that the Department of Environmental Quality was aware of the notification and action taken to limit state workers exposure to Flint’s water.
“Another day and another example of the Snyder administration’s lackluster response to this crisis. Worse yet, this shows that the response was not only late and so far ineffective, but it was also unequal,” Scott said. “Governor Snyder needs to explain to the people of Flint why his administration trucked water into a state building while allowing residents to drink unsafe water.”
Lead pipes like the ones that led to contamination of the tap water in Flint, Michigan, carry water into millions of older homes across the United States every day, a legacy of an era before scientists realized the severe long-term health consequences of exposure to the heavy metal.
Replacing these buried pipes would be costly in many cases, so chemicals often are added to prevent the plumbing from corroding and leaching lead and other dangerous metals into the drinking water. That’s a step authorities in Flint failed to take, for reasons that are being investigated.
Some researchers question whether chemical treatment and routine testing for lead in the water are enough, arguing that the only way to remove the threat is to replace the pipes.
Utility operators say what happened in Flint – a largely poor and predominantly black city of about 100,000 people that was once an automobile manufacturing powerhouse – is unlikely to be repeated, pointing to a series of mistakes at every level of government.
The city began drawing drinking water from the Flint River, and state environmental regulators failed to make sure the corrosive water was treated to prevent leaching from old pipes. The result: Flint children have been found with high blood levels of lead that could cause lifelong health problems, and parents and others are furious at public officials.
Lead pipes are predominantly found in older neighborhoods, especially in the East and Midwest, because most cities stopped installing them in the 1930s. The pipes carry water from main lines under the streets and into homes.
Estimates vary on how many of these pipes are still in use. A survey just completed by the American Water Works Association puts the number at 6.5 million. Inside homes, lead can also be found in faucets and in the solder that is used to join water pipes, but that is considered a less serious concern.
To stop lead from seeping into tap water, chemicals to protect the pipes are commonly added to the water during the treatment process. Some utilities also adjust the composition of their water to limit its corrosiveness.
In Toledo, which like Flint is an older, Rust Belt city, officials have long treated the water with phosphates to prevent leaching. Phosphates are generally considered safe for humans but can lead to runaway algae growth when the water works its way back into lakes and rivers.
Trouble can start when a utility makes a change in its treatment process or taps into a new water source without accounting for how that will affect its lead pipes, said Daniel Giammar, a lead and water researcher at Washington University in St. Louis.
“In general, as long as the water chemistry isn’t changing, you won’t have a problem,” he said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires all drinking water utilities to test for lead. The frequency of the testing can range from six months to every three years, depending on past lead levels.
The reliability of such testing is a matter of debate. Often, a small number of homeowners are given instructions and asked to provide samples of their water, which is then analyzed by regulators. That, of course, does not guarantee all homes are lead-free.
“Each individual really is given a large responsibility, and I think most people would be surprised to learn that they can’t trust what’s flowing from their tap in many cities,” said Marc Edwards, an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech University who investigated high lead levels in Flint.
Determining the scope of the problem is complicated by the lack of accurate records on which homes have lead pipes, Edwards said.
The EPA says cities need to take steps to reduce lead levels if they exceed 15 parts per billion. But many health experts say no amount is safe. They say that is especially true for children, who are susceptible to learning disabilities and behavior problems from exposure to lead.
David Cornwell, who is president of an environmental engineering company and has written some of the corrosion control methods used in the industry, said there is only one way to make certain that tap water is lead-free: “Ultimately, we have to get rid of those lead lines. No question about it.”
Similarly, an EPA advisory committee of water plant managers, water quality experts and health professionals recommended to the agency in December that such pipes be replaced.
Only a few cities have attempted such an undertaking.
Utility operators in Washington started a $400 million pipe replacement program after lead levels spiked above federal standards. But they halted the work in 2008, saying other measures had brought lead down to acceptable levels.
In Michigan, Lansing has eliminated about 13,500 lead lines and hopes to have all of them replaced within the next two years. The city is spending about $42 million over 10 years to do the work.
One big obstacle is that the lead pipes under the streets are owned by the utilities, while the sections leading into houses are usually the responsibility of the homeowners.
Also, researchers have found that removing just part of the lines isn’t enough to solve the problem and can actually make it worse by loosening lead particles in the plumbing that remains.
That’s why the water utility in Madison, Wisconsin, decided to replace its lead pipes and cover half the cost for homeowners.
City water quality manager Joe Grande said only a few lead pipes remain since the completion of the $15 million project three years ago.
“We look back and know we made the right decision,” he said. “We’re not in a situation like Flint today because we made those decisions years ago.”