I’m not sure how far the news has gotten, but if you haven’t heard, a huge swath of the eastern Twin Cities area has had their municipal water supplies contaminated with perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA) that appears to have leaked from an old 3M Plant in Cottage Grove, MN. PFBA was used to make a number of products, including Scotchguard, and is part of a family of chemicals known as perfluorochemicals, or PFC’s. The story has generated a lot of commotion locally, since most of southern Washington County is affected. The monitored levels are pretty low in the water supplies, and officially PFBA has no known short-term health effects. Not much is known about the long term effects, though, which is worrisome to the affected residents.
In doing some research, a stumbled across a report from February 2006, about the PFC contamination in Washington County. It’s a very technical and scientific paper, and I will need to read it several times over to truly understand it, I think. That said, there are some very interesting details:
- PFCs don’t completely break down into biodegradable substances, nor can humans metabolize them. Apparently PFBA doesn’t accumulate in the body like some other PFC’s do which is part of the reason why it wasn’t being tested for prior to last year.
- Related PFC-family chemicals (PFOS) have contaminated water supplies worldwide. It’s found in human blood, wastewater, groundwater, and wild-animals all over the planet.
- PFOS is listed as ‘toxic to mammalian species.” No word on whether PFBA is or not.
- PFBA, the chemical in the news currently, wasn’t being monitored by 3M at their Cottage Grove facility, and it was found in the groundwater in “high concentrations.”
- The levels of PFC’s found in fish in the Mississippi River is a “cause for immediate concern.” I wouldn’t eat a fish out of the river if you paid me.
So, what does all this mean? I don’t fully know yet, and may not know for a long time if ever. 3M is keeping a low profile on the whole deal, which isn’t surprising since there appear to be more lawsuits coming their way over this. Their Cottage Grove plant has been designated a Superfund site, which isn’t a good thing.
I have a particular interest in this story, since I happen to live in the middle of the affected area, and have been a Washington County resident for the last six years or so. I honestly have no idea at this point how bad things are, or what long-term effects it will have on my family. All I know for sure is that I am damn glad I had a reverse-osmosis water filter installed in the new house. What concerns me is that I’m almost positive that my workplace (also in Washington County) doesn’t have water filters in place for any of the drinking fountains, coffeemakers, or the water used in the cafeteria kitchen. Also, I’m guessing that the majority of the restaurants in the area don’t use filters.
I’m paranoid right now, but how long will it last? Will I refuse to eat any place in the affected cities? Maybe, but I can’t think it would last long. Unless many people start developing cancer in the next few years I’m thinking this story will slowly fade from people’s minds… perhaps mine included. If nothing else, this is a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences. In the quest for innovation and profit, companies have often created and marketed products that have big questions tied to them.
- Genetically-Modified Organisms have rapidly proliferated around the world, but especially in the USA. In 2004, 63% of Minnesota’s Corn crop was GMO seed, with similar numbers in other Midwestern states.
- We produce chemicals that are very useful, but end up contaminating water supplies: PCB’s anyone?
- Our use of CFC’s in the past helped create the ozone hole over Antarctica.
There are plenty of other cases as well. In our hurry to get new products out there and make a buck, we end up not answering some questions that may very well come back to bite us in the ass at a later date. The main thing I worry about with these new chemicals is their duration. We’ve polluted the earth plenty in the past. The difference this time is that we are creating massive quantities of man-made chemicals that take a long time to break down, if ever. Such things might not be fixed with the passage of time, in which case our grandchildren and their grandchildren will still be dealing with our folly in a low-energy world.