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Why We're not Worried about PCBs in the Milwaukee River Flood Plain

Written by Urban Ecology Center
    Friday, 31 March 2017
Why We're not Worried about PCBs in the Milwaukee River Flood Plain

You may have heard that the results of a recent EPA study found the presence of PCBs in the soil and sediment on the flood plain along a 4-mile section of the Milwaukee River that includes Riverside Park. We take health and safety very seriously, and we’re not worried. Here’s why: 

In this case, Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), a once common industrial coolant and lubricant, was found in relatively low levels in the sediment of the flood plain along the Milwaukee River. Check out the map below to see the flood plain boundaries in Riverside Park.

RiversidePark MilwaukeeRiver and Floodplain

Other areas of Riverside Park and the Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum were not tested in this study.

The study suggests that the levels of PCBs found in the soil and sediment samples are not alarming, ranging from less than 1ppm (parts per million) to 24ppm. For comparison, a section of the river north of Riverside Park along Lincoln Park required remediation when PCBs were found in levels ranging from 1ppm to over 100pmm.

According to the CDC, the primary route of exposure to PCBs in the general population is the consumption of contaminated foods, particularly meat, fish, and poultry where the contaminant is concentrated.

Because the primary way PCBs are introduced to the human body is through ingestion, this type of exposure is very unlikely through normal UEC recreation and stewardship activities in this area. Some activities do include contact with soil on the flood plain, so the DNR recommends the following simple precautionary measures to reduce exposure through absorption:

  • Wear gloves when working in the soil on the flood plain
  • Wash hands after working/recreating on the flood plain, especially if they get dirty
  • Clean equipment after use (e.g. shovels, boats, etc)
  • Wipe off shoes/boots (and paws) before entering a building, especially if they have dirt on them

The DNR also has recommendations about safe fishing practices and a guide to whether or not to eat fish caught in local waterways. Find that information here.

Safety is a top priority for the Urban Ecology Center, especially when it comes to kids. Our educational programs are focused on protecting and learning about our environment, which occasionally involves digging into the soil. When we do study the soil, which is an important part of an ecosystem, we focus on areas that are outside of the flood plain. Participants are always encouraged to wash hands after playing in or learning about the park.

Our land stewardship staff and volunteers consistently wear gloves when doing activities that involve digging into soil or pulling up invasive plant species. This practice will continue to be emphasized going forward, especially on the flood plain.

We’ve begun a detailed analysis of all of our programming and expect that the vast majority will require no adjustments to safety protocols already in place. Those that do will be implemented immediately.

It is the DNR's official recommendation that we continue our use of Riverside Park, including the flood plain area.

Planting Native PlantsWork like this will continue in Riverside Park and along the Milwaukee River with a continued emphasis on safety.

We are glad the DNR and EPA engaged in this study because we always want to know more about the health of our parks. Though we don’t think the results are a cause for alarm, the presence of PCBs in the soil does serve as an important reminder that how we treat the earth can have impacts which last far into the future. Which is why we’re so grateful for all of YOU who care about our parks and support our work here. Together, we hope we can continue to be good stewards of our green spaces.

As we’re fond of saying: we heal the land, and the land heals us.


We are happy to answer questions about our programming and our safety protocols. Please feel free to call our Riverside Park branch at (414) 964-8505. For other questions, please contact the experts listed below. 

Questions about Health Effects:

  • WI Dept of Health Services, Rob Thiboldeaux, (608) 267-6844, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • City of MKE Health Dept, Jose Rodriguez, (414) 286-6457, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Questions about Areas of Concern (AOC)/contaminated soil:

  • Wisconsin DNR, Stacy Hron, (414) 263-8625, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. AND Marsha Burzynski, (414) 263-8708, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • MKE County Parks, Kevin Haley, (414) 257-6242, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • US Environmental Protection Agency, Heather Williams, (312) 886-5993, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Photo Credit: Photo by Matt Flower
Urban Ecology Center

Urban Ecology Center

At the Urban Ecology Center, we get people of all ages outside and active every single day!  We foster ecological understanding as inspiration for change, neighborhood by neighborhood.  Read more about us here!

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