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Former 3M Chemicals Showing Up In Remote Places

Aug 15, 2004 | AP

Maplewood-based 3M Co. stopped making the chemicals behind such products as Teflon and Scotchgard four years ago, but the compounds are showing up everywhere from polar bears in Alaska and birds in the Pacific Ocean to remote Minnesota lakes.

The compounds, which are in a family known as fluorochemicals, are a concern because they don't break down and it's not clear how they've become so widespread.

Several studies in the past six years have found low levels of the compounds in humans, foods and wildlife all over the world, including fish in the Great Lakes.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not consider these fluorochemicals harmful, but it is now studying whether one of them poses any environmental or health risks.

Now researchers at the University of Minnesota have detected traces of the compounds in two remote lakes in the Voyageurs National Park in far northern Minnesota. One of the lakes is 11 miles from the nearest road.

The compounds in question include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfate (PFOS).

3M was a leading manufacturer of them until 2000, when it stopped making, selling and using them because the compounds were so widespread. The company reformulated its Scotchgard fabric protectors to remove the chemical cousins of PFOS.

One of 3M's big customers for fluorocarbons had been DuPont Co., which still uses PFOA in Teflon and other coatings, and built its own manufacturing plant in North Carolina to keep supplied with the compound.

Matt Simcik, a professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Minnesota, presented preliminary results from the Minnesota lakes study at a conference in May. He said researchers also found the chemicals in two lakes in Tettegouche State Park near Silver Bay, in Lake Michigan and in the Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis.

University of Iowa researchers recently detected traces of fluorochemicals in lakes Ontario and Erie.

"They (the levels) are not high in a toxic sense," said Keri Hornbuckle, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Iowa. "There is no danger from exposure to the water, but they are high enough that they there is no question that animals are going to accumulate them from the aquatic food chain."

Hornbuckle said fluorochemicals are different from other persistent and highly toxic substances found widely in the environment such as DDT, PCBs and mercury.

The spread of fluorochemicals is partly the result of the popularity of stain-repellent carpeting, breathable waterproof jackets and nonstick cookware.

"We like these chemicals to keep the water off our back and to keep food from sticking on our pots," Hornbuckle said. "They are the result of our wealth."

Studies have suggested that 90 percent of Americans have the chemicals at low levels in their bodies. Scientists don't know exactly how they got into humans.

They're also not sure how these chemicals are transported in the environment.

Simcik said air currents may spread them, which would explain how they got into remote lakes. Another possibility, Hornbuckle said, is that the chemicals are washing off stain-resistant or waterproof fabrics.

Scientists have known since at least the mid-1970s that fluorochemicals end up in human blood.

Larry Zobel, 3M's medical director, said the company began regularly testing fluorochemical workers in 1976 and has consistently found the chemical in their blood. Over the years, "we found no adverse health effects in our workers," he added. The workers were told of the results, 3M said.

But Zobel said further study is under way of recent findings that three fluorochemical workers in a 3M Alabama plant died of bladder cancer a higher number than would be expected.

Production workers have 50 to 500 times more of the chemicals in their blood than the general population, he added.

Zobel said testing equipment improved in the 1990s, leading to the wave of reports that fluorochemicals are widespread.

The evidence prompted 3M to stop making and using the compounds, said Michael Santoro, 3M's director of regulatory affairs.

DuPont is under fire from the EPA, which has charged that the company withheld health information about PFOA for two decades that it was required to submit. The EPA is seeking fines that could total millions of dollars.

The information includes data on the company's 1981 monitoring of pregnant workers at a West Virginia plant and the discovery of the chemical in one child's umbilical cord. DuPont filed a response last week saying it wasn't required to submit the information. It also said that PFOA found in the umbilical cord did not harm the baby.

Chris Lagan, an EPA spokesman, said the DuPont information could have triggered an earlier EPA inquiry to assess the risks of PFOA a study that could lead to regulation of the chemical.

"Had we had that information, is it reasonable to say we would have acted sooner?" he said. "It is possible it (the current risk assessment study) would have happened then."

DuPont also is facing a class-action lawsuit by residents of a West Virginia community where PFOA has been detected in the water supply.

The EPA has not accused 3M of withholding information about the chemicals. The Minnesota Health Department said its tests of wells near 3M's Cottage Grove plant, which made fluorochemicals, found none in the water.

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