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An environmental watchdog group is warning that drinking water in La Crosse and other Coulee Region communities is contaminated with potentially dangerous levels of an industrial solvent linked to cancer and other diseases.

Trichlorethylene was found in the La Crosse water system between 2010 and 2015, the last year for which data are available. Although average levels were well below federal limits, it could still be cause for concern, especially for infants and fetuses, according to a national nonprofit organization.

The Environmental Working Group is drawing attention to the presence of TCE in 315 public drinking water systems that serve 14 million Americans.

A chemical found in industrial solvents as well as household products such as spot remover and correction fluid, TCE is one of the most commonly found groundwater contaminants, particularly at former commercial and industrial sites, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Trichlorethylene contamination of an aquifer in Massachusetts was featured in the book and film “A Civil Action.”

TCE-contaminated water has been linked to birth defects, compromised immune systems and an elevated risk of cancer in cases of long-term exposure. Exposure to high levels can result in damage to the brain, nervous system and organs.

It can be ingested by drinking contaminated water and by inhaling fumes given off while bathing, washing dishes or doing laundry.

The EPA legal limit for TCE is 5 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water, but EWG argues it could be harmful at much lower levels. Based on newer research, the Minnesota Department of Health in 2013 recommended 0.4 ppb — less than a tenth the federal limit — as a safety guideline, although there are no penalties for water utilities that exceed that lower threshold.

La Crosse is one of 18 Wisconsin utilities where contamination was detected, according to EWG. Individual samples have been as high as 1.65 ppb, although the system-wide average exceeded the MPCA recommended level only in 2013 and has never been above the federal legal limit.

At least one site was above the recommended safe level in 2016 and 2017, according to the city’s annual water reports.

Prairie du Chien’s water supply has been above 0.4 ppb each year and was at 0.69 in 2015. The highest levels reported in Wisconsin were in West Bend, Cedarburg and Grafton. Public water in Spring Grove, Minn., exceeded the state health guidelines each year and in 2015 was measured at 4 ppb.

Olga Naidenko, senior science advisor for EWG, said locally elevated readings could still be cause for concern even if the overall system average is below the threshold.

“It is a good reason to take a look,” she said. “There may be an underlying problem that needs to be investigated.”

The more than 43 million Americans who get water from private wells could also be at risk: TCE was found in about 3.5 percent of wells sampled by U.S. Geological Survey scientists in 2006.

Naidenko said wells near public utilities with elevated levels are more likely to have contamination.

“It’s really important for private homeowners to test,” Naidenko said.

The La Crosse municipal water supply last year complied with federal standards for more than two dozen regulated contaminants, although there were six reported violations of the EPA’s lead and copper rule. Water superintendent Lee Anderson said the problem resulted when samples were not taken in the month outlined in new rules.

EWG previously highlighted what the group considers potentially dangerous levels of chromium-6, an unregulated contaminant that has been linked to cancer.

The EPA in 2016 proposed banning TCE for certain uses under the Toxic Substances Control Act. But the agency twice extended the comment period and this spring moved the proposed rule to its long-term list, meaning no action is expected in the next 12 months.

EWG notes this action followed repeated requests from the chemical industry to delay the decision and suggests it could be years before any new regulations are implemented, if at all.

The agency says it is evaluating TCE under "conditions of use" guidelines, which are the administrator's determination of how the chemical is used.

"EPA has concluded that the risk evaluations for TCE will be more robust if the conditions of use are evaluated by applying the guidance and approaches required by the amended TSCA statute," an agency spokesman said Thursday. "If through its evaluation EPA determines that any of these conditions of use present unreasonable risks, EPA will take prompt action under the statute to address those risks."

Naidenko said under the Trump administration the agency has moved toward deregulation.

“We don’t find those trends encouraging,” she said.

Removing TCE from public water supplies can cost millions of dollars, but in-home water filters can also be effective.

The MPCA recommends activated carbon filters, which can be installed at a sink or appliance or on the entire home water supply. The agency says using a fan or ventilation system when boiling water or bathing can reduce airborne exposure.

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Chris Hubbuch can be reached at 608-791-8217. Follow him on Twitter @chrishubbuch.



Rhymes with Lubbock. La Crosse Tribune reporter and data geek. Covers energy, transportation and the environment, among other things.

(14) comments


You'd think that with how much the GOP cares about fetuses that there would be all sorts of outrage about potentially unsafe water.


Why haven't we heard about this long before now?


If you can’t trust science on global warming then you definitely can’t trust the science on this.


It has to be done intelligently and accurately, but protecting people from poisonous contamination is more important than protecting higher profits by not enforcing environmental regulations. Isn't it?


Hey Buggs and Rick. Is this just another case of the government not being honest with us or is it a case of too much regulation? It can't be just much ado about nothing right?


right cape. Deregulation seems to be the answer for the right wingers, and the heck with public health and safety.

Buggs Raplin

Not sure where you're going with this, caped. When I ran for State Senate, pure, clean water was one of my concerns. I criticized the DNR frequently for its performance. Regulations are needed to protect the public. In Mike Jawson"s op-ed piece, I didn't criticize his call for regulation enforcement. I criticized his belief in the hoax of human-caused climate change for which there is NO evidence. But the sad thing is that many liberals/progressives think if you deny the global warming thing, you don't care about the environment. Not true in my case.


you didn't answer the question, is this concern about drinking water containing that solvent a deep state conspiracy? Is it safe to drink 5ppb? Or should it be much higher or lower. Are the scientist all in cahoots wanting to get rich off clean drinking water? Who is to say what causes cancer and birth defects? Can science be trusted? What about "necessary illusions" of clean drinking water?

Buggs Raplin

No, it's not a conspiracy. It's an institutional analysis of the GOP/Walker program of allowing big cow farms to pollute our water. Still, I'm voting for Walker as the lesser of the two evils. Walker is evil no doubt, but the socialistic Democrats are more evil with their socialism, their political correctness, their blindness in promoting the global warming this long time Democrat voter is going Republican this fall-the lesser of the two evils.


are you sure its not a conspiracy? A lot of people could get rich by advocating clean drinking water! Maybe even Al Gore!! And what about the 5ppb that is allowed in drinking water, how do we know the deep state is truthful about its safety? Have you seen definite proof that solvent causes cancer? You can't take anyone's word for it! As the truth slayer, answer all these questions and more, just like climate change. Use the same criteria, or lack of it, to examine drinking water pollutants.


yea right buggs, clean drinking water is much less important than keeping a liberal out of office. We can certainly live without clean drinking water and clean air, but we sure as heck can't live with a liberal in office for fear of a socialist taking over. Those darn liberals, they gave us things like social security, medicare, civil rights, park systems etc. Things i am sure a neo conservative like yourself would never take advantage of.

Rick Czeczok

Well that didn't even take a day and you start insulting again. Typical liberal, Benedict Arnold. Never ever trust a liberal; hey you guys can use that for your platform as you have nothing so far!!!


Rick - look up the word liberal and then look up the word conservative and then come back and tell us that same thing you just mentioned. Rush Limbaugh doesn't know the true definition of what a liberal is and neither do several posters on here. I'm a liberal and I part ways with you guys on your belief that everyone is evil. If you start throwing the word evil around like you do liberal it tells me you can't trust anyone if you feel everyone is evil. I trust some people but you have to learn to do that just like you have to learn the true meaning of words.


Zerocock, you promised on July 10 to leave these pages and not return for 7 years. Please stand by your word.

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