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Hormonal wells found in state's karst region; dairy farms possible source

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Kate Golden//Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
December 16, 2013

TOWN OF LINCOLN, Kewaunee County--In one of the most intensively farmed parts of America's Dairyland, where 29 percent of the county's private wells test unsafe due to bacteria or nitrates, residents have a new concern: estrogenic well water.

UW-Green Bay researchers cited manure as a possible source—though not the only one—for the endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in half of 40 wells in northeastern Wisconsin, chosen for testing because of their susceptibility to contamination.

“We don't know what the human health risks are,” said Angela Bauer, lead author. “But what we do know is that long-term exposure to estrogen in general can increase your risk to certain types of diseases, including hormone-sensitive cancers. So I think it's absolutely something that requires further attention.”

Lincoln resident Mick Sagrillo had already stopped drinking his well water before he learned that it had “the honor,” as he put it sarcastically, of being Kewaunee's most estrogenic—that is, tainted with the hormone estrogen or something mimicking it.

The study was published in April in the journal Water Environment Research.

To Sagrillo, an energy consultant, the estrogenic water is just another reason to worry about Big Dairy's effects on this vulnerable landscape. In Lincoln, 51 percent of the wells tested are unsafe—more than twice the statewide rate of about one quarter.

But some dairy farmers felt the UW-Green Bay study unfairly blamed them, and it raised hackles. The Dairy Business Association did not respond to emailed questions or calls about it.

Don Niles, a veterinarian and owner of the large Kewaunee County farm Dairy Dreams, noted that the researchers could not nail down what made the water estrogenic. They lacked the necessary instruments, according to Bauer.

“I think that whole paper could have been done without tying it into a likely dairy issue,” he said.

Manure increases, cropland shrinks

Here in northeastern Wisconsin, including Door, Brown, Kewaunee, Manitowoc and Calumet counties, water slips through deeply cracked karst bedrock so fast that it does not get filtered on its way to the aquifers underground. In one 2006 incident, manure flowed from people's taps.

At the same time, the area is home to some of the densest livestock farming in the state. Wisconsin has rules restricting waste spreading near karst features, but critics say they are not strong enough.

The trend is more cattle—meaning more manure—with less cropland to absorb it, according to agricultural census data analyzed by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Statewide, both cows and cropland have dropped. But in the northeastern karst region, from 1997 to 2007, the cattle herd grew by 12 percent, while cropland acreage shrank 4 percent.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture uses the term “manure-to-cropland ratio” to describe the problem. Brown County, where Green Bay's urban sprawl has eaten into farmland, has the highest ratio, followed by other northeastern counties.

“You have the worst-case scenario here,” said Bill Hafs, a former Brown County conservationist who now directs the environmental program for NEW Water, the Green Bay sewerage district. “The trends are unsustainable for agriculture and water quality.”

Gordon Stevenson, a retired former chief of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources runoff management section, calculated that Wisconsin's 3.4 million cows produce more waste than the people of Tokyo and Mexico City combined, and called land spreading of untreated manure “public enemy No. 1” in a recent speech.

Niles and other large-dairy farmers said manure management has dramatically improved over the past half-century, allowing them to precisely calibrate what nutrients are spread on the land.

“Frankly, I would like to get ahold of (the researchers) and offer the dairy industry's support in putting a study together to help answer some of these questions,” Niles said. “We don't want to be in denial of the problem, but we surely want to be sure that we have a problem if we're going to make the effort.”

What made the water hormonal?

Bauer, who recently left her UW-Green Bay biology professorship for High Point University in North Carolina, tested for estrogenic chemicals using estrogen-sensitive breast cancer cells. When doused with well water from Sagrillo and other residents, the cells multiplied.

The timing of the estrogenic samples pointed to manure as a possible source.

“There's much less land spreading occurring during the winter months—and estrogenic contamination is much lower then,” she said.

Whatever was in the water, there was not a lot of it. The concentrations were lower than the level that can feminize male fish. But a handful of samples approached that threshold.

What troubles Bauer is the role contaminated water may play in people's cumulative exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals through food, plastics, shampoos and soaps, flame retardants and industrial chemicals. The chemicals can mimic or disrupt the action of natural hormones.

No health warnings, but keep testing

Right now, the pollution levels Bauer and master's student Sarah Wingert found “are not something where we would be issuing public health advisories,” said Henry Anderson, the state's health officer and chief medical officer.

DNR groundwater chief Jill Jonas noted that most public water systems disinfect their water, which kills pathogens but does not remove many potential endocrine disruptors. Though few test for emerging contaminants like hormones, studies have shown they tend to turn up rarely and at low levels.

But in rural northeastern Wisconsin, where groundwater is often contaminated, many people rely on private well water, which is not required to be treated or regularly tested.

The Bauer study was “another reminder that people with private wells need to be testing, and making sure that their septic systems are maintained properly,” Jonas said.

The state funded Bauer's work, but is not planning to conduct or fund follow-ups, according to the DNR.

Bad water common

Bad wells have long plagued this part of Wisconsin, as Luxemburg resident Chuck Wagner demonstrated.

Standing at the roadside edge of his property, he scraped away a half-inch of dirt with his boot to reveal cracked bedrock. Such a thin layer of soil has little hope of soaking up any pollution in whatever runoff comes its way.

Over the past decade, Sometimes Wagner's well water has come out of the tap brown. When that happened, his family would not even bathe in it. A family photograph shows his granddaughters in front of a bathtub full of yellow-brown water.

Contamination can lead to illness

In March 2004, Kewaunee County resident Judy Treml's six-month-old daughter was rushed to the emergency room after manure polluted their drinking water. The farm that spread the manure was fined $50,000 and paid the Treml family $80,000.

Hafs estimated two-thirds of the residents of the town of Morrison, in Brown County, now rely on bottled water. More than 100 wells were polluted in 2006 after animal, industrial, municipal and septic wastes were spread on frozen ground.

Despite such incidents, state and local officials said many residents avoid testing their wells. Some do not care what is in it, some do not want to pay for the test, and some fear the results could devalue their homes.

Chemical's source a mystery

One of the estrogenic culprits may be local residents themselves.

Human waste can have natural and synthetic estrogens, detergents, pharmaceuticals and other potential endocrine disruptors. Wastewater treatment plants' effluent streams have lots of chemicals in them, and in this rural area, leaky septic systems are a potential source.

The Bauer study raised the possibility that industrial or treated municipal sewage sludge, spread on fields, also could be a source.

Some pesticides have been found to feminize birds, fish and other animals. They are known to get into wells: The state estimates that one-fifth of the private drinking wells statewide contain a breakdown product of the potential endocrine disruptors alachlor and metolachlor.

Then there is the large amount of estrogen produced by dairy cows. The 250 milligrams of estrogen a single cow produces daily is as potent as the hormones taken by 1,000 postmenstrual women, Israeli physiologist Laurence Shore estimated.

And Kewaunee County has 42,000 dairy cows, twice the human population. Each cow produces 18 times as much waste as a person.

“Nobody is not guilty here,” said Sagrillo, who recently had his own old well plugged.

EPA studying hormones' impact

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cites a study estimating that more than 90 percent of the estrogen in the United States comes from CAFOs—concentrated animal feeding operations. Dairy CAFOs have 700 or more cows.

Six years ago, a task force of scientists, dairymen, residents and others convened to identify ways to better protect the karst landscape in northeastern Wisconsin.

But its recommendations drew sharp opposition from dairy farmers. A 2010 Democrat-backed bill that would have further restricted land spreading of waste in karst areas never made it to the Senate floor.

Wagner believes large farms have their place. He wants to see farming “flourish in a way that's environmentally responsible.”

For now, he is giving up on his well, after more than a decade of bad test results.

This year, Wagner had a new well drilled down 304 feet to a lower aquifer, at a cost of nearly $8,000.

This project, part of Water Watch Wisconsin, was supported by the Fund for Environmental Journalism and the Fund for Investigative Journalism. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (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.



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