3M says water in east metro is safe to drink

Bottled water "sends the wrong message"
3M Staff Vice President Dr. Katherine Reed told the committee she has no concerns about the safety of east metro drinking water. Her colleague, Dr. Larry Zobel, said providing bottled water to the east metro residents who exceed health department guidelines for PFBA in their wells "sends the wrong message." He said their water is safe to drink.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

3M officials were called before the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee to share what they know about the recent discovery of a new perfluorinated chemical, PFBA. In January the Health Department announced that it had found the compound in dozens of east metro municipal and private wells.

State agencies suspect former 3M landfillss are the source of PFBA and two other previously detected perfluorinated chemicals, PFOS and PFOA. 3M manufactured these PFCs for decades to make products that resist water, heat and stains, including Scotchgard. The company stopped making some of the chemicals in 2002 after the compounds were detected widely in the blood of people and animals around the globe.

3M's Vice President for Environmental, Health and Safety Operations, Dr. Katherine Reed, told the committee that the company takes the situation very seriously. But she pointed out that the levels of the three chemicals found in some local water supplies are exceedingly low.

She also said lab tests show that PFBA is significantly less toxic than PFOS and PFOA. Reed said it takes an extremely high dose of PFBA to produce any harmful effects in lab studies.

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"For PFBA, in the most recent animal study to reach the level of exposure that caused the first reported effect, an adult weighing 110 pounds would need to consume more than 500,000, eight ounce glasses of water per day that contained one part-per-billion of PFBA," she said.

One part-per-billion is the temporary health limit for PFBA set by health department officials. Reed said the temporary limit is overly protective of human health and she thinks the health department will settle on a much higher limit once more studies are done on the little-understood chemical. But she says that doesn't mean that 3M isn't addressing the problem now.

Reed said the company is working to identify all the possible sources of PFCs and whether more landfill containment projects are necessary to prevent the chemicals from spreading in the water. She also said 3M is expanding its groundwater monitoring in the east metro and sponsoring more lab research on possible health effects related to the chemicals. Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, one of the communities where PFBA has been detected seemed skeptical of Reed's drinking water safety claims. He wondered if Reed would let her family members drink the water in some east metro communities that have posted the highest levels of PFBA.

"If you had a young daughter living in St. Paul Park at a level of 2.3 parts per billion would you recommend to that daughter that she drink through a Brita or Pur filter or would you drink it right out of the tap," McNamara asked.

"I have absolutely no concerns about drinking the public drinking water in any of the communities that we've been discussing," Reed answered.

Children are more vulnerable to the effects of contaminants, especially babies. McNamara asked Reed if she might change her mind and recommend switching to bottled water or filtered water, if she had a young granddaughter living in St. Paul Park who was breastfeeding. Reed replied that she would not.

That prompted Rep. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, to ask 3M's Medical Director Dr. Larry Zobel, why the company isn't being overly cautious on this issue.

"Why not until we have the science, why not just do what's right and put people on water and a filtration system," Bigham asked.

"I guess two responses. The water is safe to drink as it currently exists and supplying an alternative supply I believe sends the wrong message," Zobel answered.

Officials with the Minnesota Department of Health also attended the hearing. Agency staff told committee members that they believe they have set safe temporary limits for PFBA. But Director of the Environmental Health Division, John Linc Stine, said the department is waiting for more data on the chemical before it makes a final health limit recommendation.

"We hope that we will be in a better position to do that late this year. And I understand that that (creates) a very difficult position for decision-makers at a policy level both in communities as well as this body of the Legislature. So I do appreciate that."

Stine also said scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency are expected to travel to the Twin Cities within the next two months to share the latest research on perfluorinated chemicals with the health department and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.