Former MPCA scientist urges more research on spread of chemicals formerly made by 3M

Fardin Oliaei
Former MPCA researcher Fardin Oliaei testified at the Senate committee Monday about the presence of PFOA in Mississippi River fish.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

Fardin Oliaei investigated perfluorinated chemical exposure at five sites that included landfills, wastewater treatment plants and the Mississippi River. For her river study she collected samples from the water, sediment and fish. Oliaei told the committee that she was particularly interested in testing the river mainly because so many people use it for recreation and for fishing.

When she got back her results, Oliaei says she was shocked to discover that one of her fish, a white bass, had the highest levels of PFOS ever recorded.

"One of the sample has close to 30,000 parts per billion, a level that has not been reported in any blood sample of any animals," she said.

Blood test shows elevated levels
Bonnie Dahlhauser, a resident of Cottage Grove, says a blood test shows she has elevated levels of perfluorinated chemicals in her system.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

PFOS is one of several types of perfluorinated chemicals. PFOS is particularly concerning to scientists because it takes so long to get rid of the chemical after exposure. In humans it takes almost 9 years to clear it from the body.

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Oliaei told the committee that she also found high concentrations PFOS and other PFCs in river sediments. She thinks that might be one way that fish are still getting contaminated by chemicals so many years later.

PFOS and other chemicals have also been found in numerous east metro municipal and private wells over the past year. Oakdale resident Bonnie Dahlhauser was one of six area residents who called on the MPCA and the Minnesota Department of Health to do more research on the problem.

Dahlhauser said she recently had her blood tested and she found out that her level of PFOS is four times higher than the average that was found in a 3M-sponsored study back in 2000. And she says her levels of a related chemical, PFOA, were 20 times higher.

Concerned residents
Several residents of Cottage Grove expressed their concern about PFOA contamination in their neighborhoods.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

"If the half life of these chemicals is that long and if it never deteriorates than I will be living with the effects of this in my body for a long time," she said.

Some residents at the hearing have joined a lawsuit against 3M claiming they were exposed to the company's chemicals. 3M spokesman Bill Nelson attended the hearing but did not testify. He told Minnesota Public Radio the company is cooperating with stage agencies and is collecting its own samples of fish from the Mississippi River.

Officials with the Department of Health and the MPCA also attended the hearing. They told the committee that they are committed to learning more about these chemicals and they've taken steps to reduce people's exposure, particularly in cases of drinking water contamination.

But Committee Chair Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, was critical of their efforts, particularly the MPCA which recently negotiated a settlement with Fardin Oliaei that ended her employment. Marty said he wanted to hear more about what the MPCA was going to do with Oliaei's findings.

MPCA spokeswoman
Kristen Applegate represented the MPCA at the hearing.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

"I guess what I would like to have is the department be able to tell us some of those things, where you intend to go next. Instead we always get deputy commissioners and project managers and you give a good song and dance show and I like that, but I'm not sure it shows what we need to see," he said.

MPCA Deputy Commissioner Kristin Applegate told Marty that there are dozens of people working on the PFC issue in both agencies.

"If there's a specific concern that you have about work that the agency is or is not doing we're happy to entertain that. We're always open to feedback from the committee. But we're not aware of any specific concerns that relate to work that should be happening that's not," she said.

After the hearing Sen. Marty said this will probably be the last hearing on this matter for a least a couple of months. He said he hopes that the several hearings that he's held to date will succeed in prodding the health department and the MPCA do more on the perfluorinated chemicals issue.

Testing has shown that people, fish and mammals around the world have traces of perfluorinated chemicals in their blood. 3M's own testing has shown these chemicals to be toxic in lab animals. But 3M says none of its testing has shown the chemicals to be toxic to humans.

For nearly half a century 3M made and used PFOS and other perfluorinated compounds in Scotchgard and other products. One estimate by the pollution control agency estimated as much as 50,000 pounds of the compounds were released into the Mississippi River each year.

In 2000, 3M announced it would cease use of the compounds and had mostly done so by 2002.