Wednesday, November 26, 2014
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Oakdale's water contaminated; old 3M waste suspected source
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The chemicals found in Oakdale's water system were used for years by 3M to make stain repellants such as Scotchgard, and nonstick cookware. The formulas for those products were changed a few years ago. (MPR Photo/Mike Edgerly)
Two potentially toxic compounds have been found in a Twin Cities suburb's municipal water supply. The City of Oakdale, just east of St. Paul, says five of its wells have low doses of perfluorochemicals. The compounds were used for many years by Minnesota-based 3M and other companies to make nonstick cookware and stain resistant fabrics.

Oakdale, Minn. — Studies have shown that high doses of the compounds perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid, also referred to as PFOS and PFOA, can cause organ failure and possibly cancer in laboratory rats.

It's not known if the chemicals affect human health, but a few years ago 3M decided to stop using PFOS and PFOA, after researchers discovered that the compounds have traveled widely across the globe and are probably in the blood of all humans.

The source of PFOS and PFOA in Oakdale's drinking supply is not known yet, but recent testing shows the chemicals are present in the groundwater beneath two former waste disposal sites -- the Washington County Landfill and the Abresch site in Oakdale. Years ago, 3M used both landfills to dispose of waste containing both compounds. The compounds had been manufactured at a 3M plant in Cottage Grove.

James Kelly, health assessor for the Minnesota Department of Health, says the state is trying to figure out if contaminated groundwater from the landfills leaked into Oakdale's city wells. But even if it did, Kelly says residents shouldn't worry.

"The water, as we understand it, is safe to drink. The concentrations that are found are below the levels that we've established that are safe to drink for all users of this system over a lifetime," Kelly says.

"We're going to be monitoring the situation carefully, however, to ensure that that remains the case. And that's really the key message. We want people to be aware of the situation, but we don't feel at this time that there's any particular actions that need to be taken by the city or by citizens of Oakdale," says Kelly.

The tests on Oakdale's water supply were paid for by 3M. Kelly says he has no reason to doubt the results, but he says starting this week the Minnesota Department of Health will begin running its own tests on Oakdale's wells. Oakdale's mayor, Carmen Sarrack, says his city will do the same.

In over 30 years of monitoring the health of our production employees, we have not seen any adverse health effects to our employees or to anyone from these materials.
- 3M spokesman Bill Nelson

"We found this out from the Minnesota Department of Health and 3M when they did this test, so this is rather new for us," says Sarrack. "But we're going to do our own independent testing also, to make sure that the figures are right."

Still, Sarrack says he's confident Oakdale's water is safe -- and he even drank a glass of tap water from a sink in the council chambers to prove his point.

"I don't think less than a part per billion should be a concern for the citizens. But we want to make sure we're all over this, and that in case it does get worse that we are doing something and that we're proactive in this."

3M says it welcomes independent testing on Oakdale's water supply. Spokesman Bill Nelson says 3M is cooperating with state officials, and sharing the results of its own lengthy research on these compounds.

"And part of those studies involved the monitoring of our employees. In over 30 years of monitoring the health of our production employees, we have not seen any adverse health effects to our employees or to anyone from these materials," says Nelson.

Still, research on PFOS and PFOA in humans has been relatively modest by scientific standards. Only small numbers of people have been studied.

3M also tested drinking water in Hastings and Cottage Grove and didn't detect the chemicals in either of those cities. The Minnesota Department of Health says it's considering whether to test other cities' water supplies, in addition to the new tests it will conduct this week in Oakdale.

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