The Big Story Blog

Chemicals, water and the environment: 3 things we know

Posted at 4:30 PM on October 13, 2011 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Environment

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We took a long look today at the issues surrounding perfluorochemicals in Minnesota, specifically the discharges into the Mississippi River between Hastings and St. Paul, after MPR News reported the Metropolitan Council is looking at legal options against 3M tied to who should pay to comply with new rules over the discharges.

It let us drop in on the issue of chemicals, water and the environment. What legal action the Met Council might take is still up in the air. But here are three things we learned today.

1. PFCs are everywhere. They're in cookware, fabrics, carpets, fire-fighting foam and other stuff designed to resist heat, oil and stains. They're also "emerging contaminants" in the water and in most of the fish in the Mississippi River between St. Paul and Hastings.

MPR News in 2007 reported that a 3M east metro plant, and nearby landfills where it placed waste, are the major sources of PFCs. "Why does this matter?" says MPR News editor Mike Edgerly. "It's the reason the Met Council is going after one of the state's biggest employers."

2. Better than drinking water? Issues surrounding 3M, PFCs and cleanup have been around for years now. Reporter Stephanie Hemphill helped us understand what's different this time. The Minnesota Pollution Control Authority want to impose PFC limits on wastewater plants stricter than now required for drinking water.

"It all comes down to the fact that we have to protect to a level that won't cause risk in humans that consume the fish," the MPCA's Katrinia Kessler told Hemphill. "And epidemiology shows that bio-accumulation happens in fish and then in people that consume the fish in such a way that we need to have the effluent be at no greater than what we are proposing for the Met Council."

3. No adverse health effects, but... What will PFCs do to you ? The health research isn't conclusive. The science shows it's a potential carcinogen. Elevated levels of the chemicals have surfaced in the bloodstreams of 3M workers. But as the State Health Department and 3M say, there's no data showing a direct link between PFCs and human health problems.

What about the fish? What's the data tell us about the fish we eat that absorb PFCs? Testing shows the chemical compounds are in the fish between the Ford Dam and the dam above Hastings.

For the most part, the Minnesota Department of Health says don't worry. But in some places it recommends one fish meal per week and for several metro lakes with higher concentrations, it urges only one fish meal a month from those lakes.

"As new studies and science become available, our advice may be revised to reflect additional information," the department adds.


About Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto writes the Big Story Blog for MPR News. He joined the newsroom in 2008 after more than 20 years reporting on education, politics and the economy for news wires and newspapers across the country.