Photo by Kate Golden/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
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.
University of Wisconsin-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.
For more than a decade Sagrillo, an energy consultant, has kept a spreadsheet of his well’s woes, using happy and sad faces to annotate test results. The nitrate tests all show sad faces, while the coliform bacteria are about half and half. Last spring, for the first time, his well test identified the fecal bacteria E. coli.
To Sagrillo, 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.
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. He 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.”
Researcher Bauer, who recently left her UW-Green Bay biology professorship for High Point University in North Carolina, said she hoped others might follow up.
“There are a lot of concerned landowners, and a lot of really responsible farmers who want to know if their agricultural practices need to be modified in some way,” Bauer said.
What made the water hormonal?
Bauer and master’s student Sarah Wingert 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.
“Results from the study indicate that groundwater contamination with EDCs (endocrine-disrupting chemicals), fecal bacteria and nitrates is a common problem in karst areas of northeast Wisconsin,” Bauer wrote in a report.
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.
Generally, “the amount of estrogen found in well water can affect fish, plants and soil flora and fauna,” said Israeli physiologist Laurence Shore, but he added, “They do not in any conceivable way affect human health since small children ingest a thousand times more of the same hormones in a glass of cow milk.”
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.
“I’m a little bit scared at how ubiquitous they are in my everyday life,” Bauer said.
In 2010, Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at the National Institutes of Health, testified before Congress that her agency has ramped up funding for research on endocrine disruptors, which are everywhere and “often at levels plausibly associated with biological effects.”
She specifically identified drinking water as a “significant route of exposure.”
No health warnings, but keep testing
Right now, the pollution levels Bauer found “are not something where we would be issuing public health advisories,” said Henry Anderson, the state’s health officer and chief medical officer.
“But if the trend is the levels are going up,” he said, “at some point we need to have a more intensive look at what kind of intervention needs to happen.”
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. “And there needs to be closer attention on karst features, as far as agricultural producers using manure and septage for fertilizer.”
Bauer’s research touched a nerve in northeast Wisconsin. Sixty people from four counties, including residents and farmers, attended Bauer’s research presentation last summer.
Lynn Utesch, a Kewaunee County water quality activist and beef farmer, said he came away convinced of the need for more research on the link between agriculture and groundwater contamination: “It needs to be addressed at the state level by some of these agencies that are supposed to be protecting our groundwater.”
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.
He has seen manure streaming off a nearby field into a sinkhole in a ditch.
Wagner, all too aware of the land’s vulnerability, rents some of his land to a nearby dairy farmer who spreads less than the maximum manure allowed.
Some cases of manure contamination in the region have had clear-cut and serious consequences.
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.
Testing is rare
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.
In a small University of Wisconsin study, just 11 percent of well owners said they had tested their wells the previous year. DNR private water supply chief Steve Ales said the real proportion may be even lower.
“When the water runs brown, they just don’t drink it,” said Davina Bonness, Kewaunee County water quality specialist, who has been crusading for homeowners to test their wells.
Wagner participated in Bauer’s estrogen study, but she could not tell whether his water was estrogenic. It was so toxic that it killed the cancer cells.
Hafs has seen plenty of scientists come to study the area’s water systems and observed, “They always bring bottled water.”
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 man-made estrogen in the birth control pill known as ethinylestradiol is particularly potent, and may be “the major pharmaceutical compound of concern” in the environment, Shore said. He has traced it 60 miles downriver from a sewage treatment plant in Israel.
The Bauer study raised the possibility that industrial or treated municipal sewage sludge, spread on fields, also could be a source.
An Illinois graduate student last year found evidence suggesting that “a large portion of karst groundwater systems in Midwestern regions was co-contaminated with human and livestock feces.”
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, 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. “But even if the numbers are off by an order of magnitude, it’s still like, wait a minute — this is an enormous impact.”
EPA studying hormones’ impact
Nationwide, numerous studies have found hormones from animal waste in surface waters and groundwater near CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson said in an email.
The EPA cites a study estimating that more than 90 percent of the estrogen in the United States comes from CAFOs. Dairy CAFOs have 700 or more cows.
U.S. Geological Survey researchers found low levels of hormones in 15 of 19 basins they sampled across the country — and more in sediments and runoff, according to provisional data.
Lead author Dana Kolpin said unintentional manure runoff is an “important but underappreciated pathway” for hormones to get into streams, with most such releases going unreported.
Wisconsin researchers have found that hormones can degrade quickly in the environment.
But depending on the conditions, they may also persist. A University of Illinois researcher found hormones stuck around in dairy wastewater lagoons.
“What happens is that if you concentrate a huge amount of them,” Shore said, “the environment can’t handle it.”
And private wells in karst regions are particularly vulnerable “because of the many direct routes between the surface and the groundwater,” said Anderson, the state health officer.
No changes to manure management
DNR’s Andrew Craig, a nutrient management specialist who works with farmers on their manure plans, said he was not surprised to hear something estrogenic had been detected in the area’s well water, given the geology.
Although research supports the tie between such chemicals and their effects on human and animal health, it is not conclusive.
“If we’re going to make rules, we have to have very clear scientific evidence,” Craig said. “But absent that information, we can’t make a legal argument to do that.”
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.
Presence does not mean harm
Nancy Shappell, a USDA researcher in South Dakota who has studied endocrine disruptors in runoff, cautioned against sensationalizing the mere presence of estrogenic chemicals in water.
“Everybody’s going around screaming, ‘The sky is falling,’ ” Shappell said. “We really need some context.”
Some in this new field have emphasized detections of vanishingly small amounts without showing what effects they are having on wildlife or people at those levels, Shappell said.
And while the scientific methods in this area are evolving, she said, they’ve often been messy and error-prone.
A complicating factor is that some of these chemicals have been shown to exert environmental effects, such as feminizing male fish, at amounts almost too low to accurately measure: in the low parts per trillion. That’s equivalent to a few drops in fifty Olympic-sized swimming pools.
“This is actually the biggest problem in conducting this research,” the EPA said.
No anti-CAFO weapon
Some residents fighting large farms in the area contacted Bauer for data, hoping to use it against them, but Bauer discouraged them.
“Obviously, at this point in time, I’m not able to do that,” Bauer said.
But Sagrillo said he suspects manure spread on nearby fields polluted his water.
“These guys are just trying to earn a living like everybody else,” Sagrillo said. “I just think they’re doing it in a way that appears to be polluting the groundwater.”
Wagner believes large farms have their place. “I don’t — in any way, shape or form — want to see farming diminish. I want to see it flourish. But I want to see it 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 (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.