Rep. Karla Bigham was clearly frustrated after hearing contrasting opinions about the danger posed by 3M chemicals in east metro drinking water. Why shouldn’t the company provide bottled water or filtering systems to affected residents until more is known, the Cottage Grove DFLer asked two 3M executives at a legislative hearing Tuesday.
“The water is safe to drink as it currently exists, and supplying an alternative supply, I believe, sends the wrong message,” said 3M medical director and vice president Dr. Larry Zobel.
Zobel and another 3M executive came to the Capitol to confront the rising concerns over the three chemicals, formerly manufactured by the company and detected in private and public wells.
The three chemicals have been found alone or in combination in the groundwater of several communities, especially near dumps that 3M used to dispose of them between 1956 and 1974.
The state Health Department recently lowered its recommended maximum level of two 3M chemicals, legislators have introduced several bills to tighten regulation and the attorney general is considering legal action related to the pollution. But two 3M vice presidents told legislators that residents have no need to worry about the levels of three perfluorochemicals in their water.
“We do know, based on science, that there are no health effects from PFBA, PFOA or PFOS at levels found in the environment,” said Katherine Reed, 3M vice president for environmental, health and safety operations.
Reed said that little is known about PFBA, but that 3M workers exposed for years to the other compounds have shown no adverse health problems related to the chemicals. When asked if she would drink tap water in cities where the chemicals have been detected, Reed said that she would, and that she has “absolutely no concerns” about the water.
State health officials did not agree that exposure to the chemicals, even at relatively low levels, was free of risk.
“It’s too soon to tell what the health risks associated with these chemicals are,” said John Linc Stine, environmental health division director for the Minnesota Department of Health.
The department last week revised the maximum concentrations that it considers to be protective for PFOA and PFOS which have been detected in Oakdale and Lake Elmo. Another substance, PFBA, was detected in January in city wells of Woodbury, Cottage Grove, Hastings, St. Paul Park, Newport and South St. Paul. The PFBA concentrations were slightly above or below the Health Department’s guideline of 1 part per billion.
Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said he was encouraged that 3M testified at the hearing and that Reed pledged to take responsibility for groundwater problems if they prove to be more serious.
Last week, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson sent letters to the commissioners of the Health Department and the Pollution Control Agency, asking for data about the history of the chemicals, their characteristics, health risks and cleanup plans. In an interview, Swanson called the effort a “fact-finding attempt to evaluate whether additional legal action may be appropriate.”
3M’s Reed said that although the company does not believe the chemicals pose any health risk at current levels in the environment, 3M is sponsoring more laboratory research and environmental studies, and is conducting additional groundwater monitoring and investigations of potential sources of the pollution.
The company stopped making the chemicals in 2002, which were used for decades in a variety of products such as nonstick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, films and firefighting foams.