After finding dangerous PFAS chemicals in the drinking water around the 3M factory in Cordova, Illinois, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an administrative order that included the requirement that 3M provide water testing and treatment for the people living in the area.
This order came in November 2022 after the EPA discovered that PFAS contamination was endangering the water supply. The EPA order means 3M must test private wells within three miles of the Cordova plant and public water systems up to 10 miles away, affecting at least 293,600 people in Illinois and Iowa.
How Is PFAS Contamination Dangerous to Health?
According to the EPA, “PFAS are a group of manufactured chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products since the 1940s because of their useful properties. There are thousands of different PFAS, some of which have been more widely used and studied than others.”
Because PFAS use is widespread and they are able to remain in the environment indefinitely, accumulating in the body over time, studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shown that most people in the United States have been exposed to them.
Research about the health impact of PFAS is ongoing, but studies have shown that PFAS exposure can impact:
- Reproductive effects, like decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women
- Development in children, such as low birth weight, accelerated puberty, bone variations, or behavioral changes
- Risk of cancer, such as prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers
- Immune systems
- Hormones in the body
- Cholesterol levels
- Risk of obesity
A web article by Northern Public Radio explained that PFAS “do not break down readily in the environment and accumulate in the bodies of people who are exposed to them, earning the nickname ‘forever chemicals.’”
What Is Happening Now to Prevent Further PFAS Water Contamination?
The EPA allowed the 3M Cordova plant to discharge wastewater into the nearby Mississippi River with the stipulation that the company monitor PFAS levels. In 2019, the plant informed the EPA that it was in fact discharging more PFAS chemicals than it had reported before.
Testing by the EPA showed that “at least ‘60 PFAS analytes’ were released into the air, water, and soil around the plant.”
David Cwiertny, a University of Iowa engineering professor and director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, is pleased to hear 3M is being held responsible for the local water pollution.
“These folks are unfortunate to be very near a 3M facility, but at least we’re helping them,” Cwiertny said.
But could there be undetected contamination elsewhere? “The only way you can try to get your hands around a problem is to figure out where the chemicals were used and where they are coming from,” Cwiertny said.
There have been other incidents around the country of contamination of drinking water supplies that resulted in lawsuits, but the EPA was not concerned.
Lori Swanson, Minnesota Attorney General from 2007 to 2019, worked on one such lawsuit in Minnesota in 2010.
The EPA was “not involved, and I think there has been an evolution on the part of the EPA,” said Swanson, now an attorney in private practice at Swanson Hatch P.A. “Nowadays, they certainly seem more aggressive.”
The EPA published its first drinking water notice on PFAS in 2016. Beginning in 2021, the EPA has said it will enforce PFAS drinking water standards.
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