Thursday, July 31, 2014
Go to Toxic Traces
Toxic Traces
Part 1: The science
Part 2: The neighbors
Part 3: The politics
Part 4: The company
Part 5: The future
The long reach of perfluorinated chemicals
A timeline of PFCs
Reporter's notebook
Resources and links
Have you been affected by environmental pollution?
Photos
Resources

Sponsor

Part 5: The future
Larger view
Fardin Oliaei says she's demoralized by her long fight with the higher-ups at the MPCA to do more research on perfluorochemicals. Someone once joked that she's more persistent than the chemicals she works with. The description pleased her. (MPR Photo/Mike Edgerly)

St. Paul, Minn. — DuPont continues to produce PFOA at its plant in West Virginia. In Decatur, Alabama, Dyneon, a subsidiary of 3M, reported to the EPA it continues to use small amounts of PFOA in certain products.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has now added PFOS and PFOA to its chemical surveillance list. The 2007 report will provide more comprehensive data about how much of these substances are in Americans' bodies.

The Old Cottage Grove Concerned Citizens Group has disbanded. Its leader, Stanley Hale, says he burned his filing cabinet of documents and news clippings seven years ago, and moved to western Wisconsin. His son continues to work for 3M.

The EPA says it doesn't know yet if PFOA and PFOS can cause cancer in humans, but current studies don't rule out the possibility, either. The EPA is investigating how the chemicals affect the body, including potential problems with reproduction, the immune system and the liver.

The general lack of information about the chemicals leads people in Washington County to speculate. Susan Berndt, who grew up near the Woodbury landfill, runs down a long list of health problems facing people on her street.

"We sat down and starting counting them up, and it was unbelievable. Steve died of cancer. He was younger than I am. Happy has cancer right now. Then we go on to Jim and Nancy, and then another Nancy, and Tony," Berndt says. "The lady that lives next door here died of breast cancer, and the lady that lives two doors over died of cancer. And then to the west there's a farm, and I know both of the parents of those children died of cancer. Seems like so many people who have had cancer -- and is it just coincidence? It just makes you wonder."

Dr. Fardin Oliaei attempted to resubmit her research proposals at the MPCA last month, but she says she couldn't get support from her managers.

The results of her Washington County landfill samples came back from the lab and showed very high levels of PFOS, PFOA and other related chemicals.

Oliaei say it's time to stop looking at chemicals in isolation. PFOA and PFOS have similar chemical cousins, but no one is studying how widely they may have spread through the environment and what harm they may pose.

The public relations staff at the MPCA wanted to write about Oliaei's perfluorinated chemicals research. But internal e-mails obtained by Minnesota Public Radio show the staff killed the article, because they were "convinced that the editorial board or other leaders would cut the story at this time." The publications coordinator told MPR her bosses suggested she select another contaminant to focus on -- one not so controversial within the agency.

Oliaei says she is demoralized, but not defeated. She says someone once joked that she's more persistent than the chemicals she works with. The description pleased her.

The bottom line, Oliaei says, is that taxpayers have funded her work at the MPCA for 16 years, and deserve the benefit of all she has learned about these chemicals.

"They are in the environment. They are most probably in the blood and serum of any of them, or their children or their parents," says Oliaei. "They have a right to know about how toxic they are, what is the level of science available, in a meaningful manner -- not to panic, but awareness."

3M broke no laws producing PFOS and PFOA for more than half a century. 3M's phaseout was voluntary, and to this day, no other company has followed its lead. The chemicals remain unregulated, and circulate through the air, water and soil.

An EPA scientist we spoke with said there are thousands of chemicals like PFOA and PFOS that should be regulated, but probably won't be. It takes years to prove how chemicals behave in the environment and in our bodies. It's even more difficult to prove that exposure to such chemicals causes human harm.

Scientists like Rich Purdy and Fardin Oliaei say it's time to stop looking at chemicals in isolation. PFOA and PFOS have chemical cousins with very similar properties, but no one is studying how widely these other chemicals may have spread through the environment, and what harm they may pose.

The lawsuit brought by Cottage Grove residents suing 3M had its first court date Feb. 22, in Stillwater. Attorneys for 3M asked a judge to dismiss parts of the lawsuit that required the company to pay for residents' health monitoring. The company is also asking the judge to drop trespass and other charges against 3M, for allowing its chemicals to infiltrate Washington County neighborhoods. The judge will issue a ruling at a later date.

An EPA scientific advisory board is currently evaluating the health risks posed by PFOA. The advisers recommended after a Feb. 2005 meeting that the EPA consider elevating its cancer-causing classification of the chemical, according to a report from the publication, Environmental Policy Alert.

Sponsor