PFCs from 3M: an ongoing source of debate

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For a half-century, ending in 2000, 3M produced some kinds of “perfluorochemicals” (PFCs) for use in stain resistant, anti-grease household products, most notably Scotchgard and Teflon (eventually sold to the Delaware-based DuPont Company), among others. Through the 1970s, the company dumped PFC wastes into local landfills, as was conventional and legal back then. From there, some PFCs seeped into groundwater, migrating into municipal and private wells in Lake Elmo, Oakdale, Cottage Grove and Woodbury. Numerous residents of these communities claim PFC contamination of groundwater has had a negative effect on their physical wellbeing while also causing their property values to decline.

Recently, PFCs also turned up in Lake Calhoun, but the source of this contamination is yet to be determined. Some researchers say the lake is too far away from the 3M landfills to bear any connection to its wastes.

PFCs don’t disintegrate, staying in a person or animal’s blood long after they are ingested by drinking tainted water or by eating fish that contain the toxins. Lab rats showed signs of cancer and other afflictions after they consumed large amounts of the chemicals. However, there’s no evidence to indicate a correlation between health problems and PFCs in humans. Some scientists argue that it’s far too much of a stretch to assume that people would react the same way even to high doses of PFCs, short of guzzling thousands of glasses of “bad” water everyday.

Class action denied

A judge denied thousands of community stakeholders the ability to unite as a class in a lawsuit against the 3M Co., regarding drinking water that’s contaminated with some chemicals the company previously manufactured, in a ruling made on Tuesday, June 19.

Nearly 68, 000 Minnesotans might have been added to the lawsuit, had Washington County Judge Mary Hannon’s decision fallen in their favor, while as many as a thousand people are already participating in the case, according to attorney Martha Wivell, who is representing the plaintiffs. Now, anyone else who wants to take 3M to court, aside from those who are part of the complaint that was originally filed in 2004, must do so independently.

Bill Nelson, a 3M spokesperson, said he understands the concerns, but he maintained, “Based on all of our research, the level we see in the environment is safe, drinking water safe.”

Nelson said the company is pleased with the judge’s decision about class status, which he said is consistent with the arguments the lawyers made during the legal proceedings to date. Those proceedings have included handing over a million pages of information on PFCs in the “discovery” or research phase.

Washington County Judge Mary Hannon has referred to problems that would arise with such a large class-action suit, including a tedious process to check out each individual story, and criticisms of some of the plaintiffs’ and attorneys’ mishandling of the case.

3M attorney Cooper Ashley declined to comment on the case. The plaintiffs’ attorneys have also said they won’t discuss the matter, but they released a written statement Tuesday, conveying their plan to stay the course.

Cleaning up PFC wastes

Environmental concerns about PFCs were first raised in the late 1990s, as scientists detected trace amounts in people and animals around the world. 3M is not single-handedly responsible for the flow of PFCs around the globe. A handful of other big corporations in the U.S., Europe and Japan have produced PFCs, according to information from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Similar legal disputes revolving around PFC contamination of drinking water have also erupted in Ohio and Alabama. People also are regularly exposed to PFCs in other forms, such as in food packaging.

In May, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and 3M reached a settlement agreement and consent order that requires the company to clean up the pollution in its Chemolite, Oakdale and Woodbury disposal sites. As part of the agreement, 3M will spend $13 million to remediate these sites and help fund state research on PFCs. In the coming months, 3M will finalize work plans to sort out the individual chemicals at each landfill. The MPCA will carry out the plans, as it sees fit. This primarily includes plans for disposal of “perfluorooctane sulfonate and its salts” (PFOS), “perfluorooctanoic acid and its salts” (PFOA), and “perfluorobutanoic acid and its salts” (PFBA). PFOS, PFOA and PFBA are different kinds of PFCs.

Michael Kanner, who manages the MPCA Superfund program, said the chemicals are on his and others’ radar these days, but that was not always the case. “We didn’t know they were nasty to begin with, ” he said, “didn’t have the testing for it and didn’t have the health standards” until recently.

Such sites are usually treated with a carbon treatment through a filter that pulls pollutants out like a vacuum, although there are various methods for eliminating or confining chemicals, according to Kanner. For example, the pollutants could be incinerated or placed into a special facility to contain them, he said.

As a temporary solution, 200 homes in Lake Elmo are now receiving city water. Kanner said the MPCA has supplied bottled and filtered water to Oakdale residents whose drinking water has PFC concentrations that exceed the Minnesota Department of Health’s (MDH) “health-based values, ” or safety guidelines. Additionally, a carbon filter is at work in Oakdale.

MDH recently issued a fish consumption advisory, cautioning that people should restrict how many fish they eat from the Mississippi River, in areas between the Ford Dam and Hastings that might contain PFOS. It states that people should eat no more fish than enough for one meal per week (there was no limit before). An advisory was also set for Lake Calhoun, and the rest of the Upper Chain of Lakes (Brownie, Cedar, Lake of the Isles and Harriet), limiting consumption to just one fish per month. Chemicals have been found in the tissues of bluegill sunfish and smallmouth bass in Calhoun, the MPCA guidelines explain, and bluegills are known to move from lake to lake.

Setting health-based values

Right now, the MPCA is collaborating with the MDH and the EPA to investigate the environmental impact of PFCs, which is still largely unknown. That includes studies of substances in municipal and private wells, closed and active landfills, sediment from the Mississippi River, discharge from the Cottage Grove facility and the metro wastewater plant and fish tissues – to arrive at benchmarks for PFOS and PFOA contamination of water.

As part of this joint effort, 800 private wells have been tested over the past few years, according to MPCA information. The agencies sampled 385 private residential wells in southwestern Lake Elmo and seven wells in Oakdale last fall. Of those, 149 residential wells contain PFCs above MDH’s advisory guidelines; 177 private wells have low concentrations of PFCs; and 59 private wells in Lake Elmo and six in Oakdale were found to contain no PFCs.

In response to widespread fears about the chemicals among constituents, State Senator Katie Sieben (DFL-District 57) proposed a bill during this year’s legislative session that calls for the MDH to establish formal “health-risk limits” by August. The department’s “health-based values” aren’t officially recognized measurements, although both standards are calculated the same way. As passed, the legislation also contains conditions that require the health department to report on how it derives those values and how they compare with those in other states. Sieben brought the bill forward because, she said, “People had a lot more questions than the agencies were able to answer. It was very frustrating.”

Sieben also helped push a cutting-edge “bio-monitoring” program, a health tracking system that will keep records of people’s chemical exposure, taking advantage of the momentum around PFCs.

“Here in my neck of the woods, there’s no guideline for how much [of a certain kind of PFC] is safe, ” she said. “The company keeps saying the water is safe but the department of health doesn’t know the long-term effects. The driving force behind it was to make sure taxpayers don’t suffer any ill effects.”

Jim Kelly, a health assessor in the site assessment unit at MDH, explained that scientists look for the dosage in animals that produce the least measurable effect, to which they apply numerous safety factors to set “health-based values.” The “health-based value” for PFOA is 0.3 micrograms per liter, for instance; 0.5 micrograms per liter for PFOS; and 1.0 micrograms per liter for PFBA. Even in the cases of well water containing levels of PFCs above those estimates, by the time it reaches people’s homes, it’s even more diluted. “I doubt that anyone is getting water at tap exceeding the values, ” he said.

In other states, values are calculated differently. In New Jersey, for instance, “They’re not strictly health-based. They did some things that aren’t part of the normal process for us, ” said Kelly.

He said the department’s recent analysis of cancer rates in the communities most affected by PFCs showed a number of incidences similar to other parts of the metro area. Cancer rates were comparable to the norm across the state, as well, with some natural variations.

Kelly admitted that while the test is not perfect, on the whole, “That fits. We weren’t expecting to see anything unusual. We can reassure the community there aren’t any adverse effects. Overall, this is good news.”

Because the population is growing rapidly and many residents didn’t live there a decade ago, the analysis isn’t indicative of lifetime exposure, however. Additionally, because it can take decades for most cancers to develop, longer-term studies are needed. Cancer studies are difficult because many other risk factors play into whether or not someone could develop cancer, including age, family history and lifestyle choices, and others.