3M and PFC groundwater contamination in Minnesota

Health Dept.: No unusual changes in rates of cancer in east metro from 3M chemicals

3M headquarters in Maplewood
The headquarters of 3M Co., is shown Thursday, April 23, 2009, in Maplewood, Minn.
Jim Mone | AP 2009

Updated: 8:20 p.m. | Posted: 6:51 p.m.

Two state agencies are at odds over whether 3M's dumping of chemicals in the east Twin Cities metro area harmed the health of residents.

The Minnesota Department of Health released an analysis Wednesday claiming that data doesn't show unusual changes in rates of specific conditions — some cancers and birth defects.

The analysis comes just a week before a trial begins in a $5 billion lawsuit against 3M. Minnesota's Attorney General Lori Swanson claims the company's dumping of perfluorochemicals (PFCs) led to more cancer and infertility in the area where the contamination happened.

In a press release, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said, "Due to the concerns we heard from the community, we felt an obligation to reexamine the available data. We used well-established public health best practices to identify and investigate the concerns. What we found supports the state's existing safeguards."

Gov. Mark Dayton announced Malcolm's appointment as health commissioner just over a week ago.

Dayton urged the release of the analysis prior to trial.

"We learned that the Department of Health was wrapping up this report and when they finished it we felt it was important for the attorney general to have access to this study, given that they are going to trial soon and given that it's a public study," said Matt Swenson, spokesperson for the governor's office. "The Department of Health has an obligation to release it once the report is concluded. So the governor did feel that it needed to be released."

Swanson first filed suit against the Maplewood-based company in 2010.

Swanson responded to the release of the analysis Wednesday with a statement.

"It is deeply troubling that the Minnesota Department of Health rushed a report out the door a week after its chief architect wrote that the 'cancer portion of the report will be weak' and that 'it will be nowhere near our standards and frankly it will run the political risk of embarrassing MDH in the hands of even a novice epidemiologist,'" she wrote. "I can only conclude from this that the agency is embarrassed because it is so late to the table in protecting the public health."

But the state health department responded that it had addressed the attorney general's point about apparent dissension in the department, saying the "concerns" did not have to do with the conclusion, but explaining "our analyses to the community. The reports had full and proper technical review, and our reports are supported by all staff involved," according to a statement late Wednesday from Michael Schommer, spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Health.

In the statement, Swanson also said 3M warned about the cancer risk on the label of products containing PFCs.

An analysis by an expert witness in Swanson's lawsuit found that there were adverse health affects caused by the PFCs.

The state health department's analysis says 3M's disposal of PFCs caused serious environmental damage and affected the ground water. It also says PFCs do pose a risk to human health, but the analysis does not suggest higher rates of premature births or low birth weights are related.

In a statement, 3M said, "There is nothing more important to 3M than the safety of our people, our customers, and the communities in which we operate. In a new report, the Minnesota Department of Health stated: 'Cancer rates within the eight communities that had some history of water contamination did not differ from other Metro area communities, except for lower rates of oral and pancreatic cancer.' We do not believe there is a PFC-related public health issue in Minnesota and look forward to discussing the MDH report with the State during trial."

The trial is scheduled to begin in Hennepin District Court on Feb. 13.

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