Trace Chemicals Found In Minnesota Drinking Water

Thursday, March 8th 2007, 5:35 am
By: News On 6

HASTINGS, Minn. (AP) _ For years, Kim Christienson barely gave a thought to the water coming from the well outside her house. Her family drank it, washed with it, cooked with it.

These days, she thinks about the water a lot. The discovery of trace amounts of an industrial chemical has Christienson and many other people wondering if it's safe to use, even as health officials assure them it's fine.

``I feel like there's a risk and they don't know what it is,'' Christienson said, ``and I don't want to take that risk with my children. How could I?''

Since the discovery of the chemicals, used for years by 3M Co., one of Minnesota's largest companies, health officials have said families should use bottled water or buy filters if it gives them peace of mind. The hope is that animal tests, to be finished within the next several months, will further show that the water is fit for human consumption.

Bill Nelson, a spokesman for 3M, said the company is ``working as hard as we can with the state of Minnesota'' to learn more about the chemical concentration and pinpoint the source.

In the meantime, people like Terri Jo Wargo, of nearby St. Paul Park, are wondering whether to pony up for a filter or buy jugs of water. Since hearing about the chemical discovery, Wargo has been mixing formula for her 4-month-old daughter, Abby, in bottled water, though she still bathes the baby in water from her tap.

``If they don't filter it, then they at least need to let us know what is going to happen at these (chemical) levels, right away,'' said Wargo, who joined about 75 other people earlier this month at a packed meeting at Hastings City Hall.

``Otherwise, how are we supposed to respond?''

The towns where traces of the chemical PFBA were found form a semicircle from South St. Paul on the southern edge of St. Paul to Hastings, which sits 30 miles to the southeast.

Health officials found traces as high as 1.8 parts per billion in Cottage Grove and 2.3 ppb in St. Paul Park. Water in the other cities had concentrations below 1 ppb, the standard the Health Department uses to notify the public. The agency hasn't come up with a uniform standard at which it would declare the levels unhealthy.

PFBA is part of a class of chemicals called perfluorochemicals, or PFCs, which 3M made at its Cottage Grove plant from the 1950s until 2002 for use in stain repellents, nonstick cookware and other products. The chemicals were dumped in the company's Woodbury landfill during the 1960s, and it's believed they then began to flow with the groundwater toward the Mississippi River, which runs alongside the communities where PFBAs were found.

Unease over the issue has led to a slew of proposals this session at the state Legislature.

One bill would define PFCs as hazardous substances, ensuring that the polluters would be responsible for the cost of cleaning up or removing the chemicals. Another measure would set an interim health risk limit of 0.5 ppb for PFBAs while the health risks are reassessed. And still another proposes that PFCs in the body tissue of volunteers be measured.

To quell fears and squash rumors about the chemical PFBA, the Health Department and the state's Pollution Control Agency set up meetings at churches and city halls across the six communities.

For Cottage Grove resident Gina Tester, who has two daughters ages 5 and 6, the state's approach is reasonable.

``We'll see how it all plays out,'' she said. ``If we need to test the water, we'll test it. If we need a filter, we'll get one. If we need to buy bottled water, OK. I'm not giving up on my community. We're not going anywhere because of this.''

Yet at All Saints Lutheran Church, where Tester sat in the pews with about 200 people, the loudest round of applause was for a man who said 3M could solve the problem by simply paying for filters on any well _ municipal or private _ where the chemicals have been detected.

The Pollution Control Agency might eventually force 3M to do just that, but not without solid evidence that the chemical concentration can be harmful to humans, officials said.

``You want your answers to be based on the best available science,'' said John Linc Stine, a state Health Department official.