Bad Water and Unintended Consequences

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.


7 Responses to Bad Water and Unintended Consequences

  1. Jim says:

    There has been another groundwater contaminant plume in the eastern metro for years. If I recall correctly, it originates from or near th Lake Elmo airport and affects parts of Lake Elmo and surrounding areas. In this case, it is TCE, a degreaser and suspected carcinogen. I worked for a few months in Lake Elmo, and was told to drink only the Culligan because the tap water was contaminated. There is an enormous plume of TCE also that affects the drinking water supply of New Brighton, originating from the munitions plant up there. The US Army (out of lawsuit fear) built New Brighton a state-of-the-art water treatment system. I toured the treatment plant a few years ago, and it was an amazing facility.

    When I took a class in Environmental Law back in grad school, the instructor covered the body of regulation that pertains to underground storage tanks (like those used by almost every gas station). I remember vividly him telling the class: “tanks leak, they always do.” There are horror stories of gas stations doing the end of year accounting and discovering that they can’t account for thousands of gallons of “product”. Presumably, the missing fuel is floating away in the groundwater.

  2. Bart says:

    You’re right, Jim… there is a plume that extends from around the Lake Elmo airport and heads ESE from there towards the St. Croix, affected a lot of high-end housing and their private wells as I recall.

    PFBA and the other PFC’s are suspected carcinogens as well. Based on the notes in the reported I linked to, it sounds like PFC’s are found all over the world now, so we’ve all likely got some level of concentration in our bodies, as do all of our kids, etc. What will be interesting to see will be whether concentration levels drop over time, or if it’s something that is going to stay with us forever.

    Tainted water supplies are something we all are going to have to accept as a fact for a while, I think. I’m guessing that 3M will be hit up for some kind of settlement to build similar water-treatment plants all over the East Metro. How they react to such a proposal will be informative… hopefully they won’t be like Allstate, who is being sued by many New Orleans residents for more or less only paying out about $.10 on the dollar for damages from hurricane Katrina.

  3. Keith says:

    About gasoline leaking from gas stations. I’ve read that the gasoline itself is pretty volatile and tends to break down before it does a huge amount of damage, but some additives to the gasoline (in particular PTFE) stick around a long time. In many many areas the ground water is contaminated with PTFE, which is a carcinogen and causes some other health issues too (can’t remember what off the top of my head). Nasty business.

  4. Jim says:

    Gasoline and many of its constituents often break down fairly rapidly in the presence of ordinary soil bacteria. However, gasoline, benzene, etc, tend to “float” on top of the water table and can travel very quickly in certain hydrogeologic environs.

  5. […]  If you live in or near Washington county, I’d suggest getting a good water filter if you don’t already have one… that, or move.   With the housing market in the tank, it’ll be much easier to get the filter. Previous posting on this subject […]

  6. Mary says:

    My husband and I have been in Wash county all summer. Right now we are in our RV at Ocean Shores staying at the bird sanctuary. The last few weeks I have had stomach ache’s, dizziness, nausea and in general feeling like I’ve had no sleep or anything to eat right after I have eaten and slept. Thought it was diabetes.

    Stopped drink the water this morning and started drinking bottled water and am feeling much better. Now you know what the effects of perfluorochemicals are on old people who have previously been show to be highly sensitive to contamination. Guess we won’t be staying here much longer.

  7. halfdead says:

    One main consern is the sudden breakout of diabetes cases since this discovery in our water.

    as for the ozone..every electric motor that has brushes creat ozone, along with any other kind of electrical spark. including lightning

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