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A program begun five years ago to monitor PFC levels in east metro residents will end in June under Gov. Mark Dayton's budget plan, despite a recommendation to expand and continue it by a state agency's panel of health experts.
Levels of PFCs -- perfluorochemicals, a group of compounds used in an array of products and once manufactured by 3M Co. -- have steadily declined in people since a huge and costly effort to clean up four sites in Washington County where they were once legally dumped.
But PFC levels measured since 2008 in dozens of volunteer residents of Cottage Grove, Oakdale and Lake Elmo since that cleanup began are still above the U.S. average. For that reason, an advisory panel to the Minnesota Department of Health recommended to the Legislature that the biomonitoring program not only be extended to see if that downward trend continues, but also that the sampling size be enlarged to get a clearer picture of how PFC levels compare among people and what steps reduce PFC exposure.
Funding for the PFC biomonitoring program, however, was not included in the governor's budget plan.
Instead, two other initiatives, at a total cost of $1.2 million, were included: a new biomonitoring program to gauge mercury levels in children and newborns statewide after levels deemed unsafe were detected in the Lake Superior basin along the shores of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan; and determining how air quality in inner cities affects people with asthma and other chronic respiratory diseases.
The decision to exclude the PFC biomonitoring does not reflect how valuable the program has been, said Jean Johnson, director of the health department's biomonitoring program. "It came down to a choice of how to best use our limited resources."
It also doesn't reflect a lack of concern by the agency over PFCs, she said, which will continue to be monitored in groundwater. The recommendations of the 13-member advisory panel are carefully considered, but do not automatically get passed on into the budget plan.
Still, Bruce Alexander, a panel member and a professor at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health, called the decision to end PFC biomonitoring a "disappointment." He said following up on the PFC analysis work is definitely warranted.
State Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, also said she was concerned that PFC biomonitoring funds are targeted for elimination. "I would think we could come up with some additional funding for this, given the importance of the PFC issue in the east metro," she said.
New science is emerging all the time on the effects PFCs have on human health and, like Alexander, Sieben said having hard data is essential in guiding policies to protect public health.
"To have the levels known is one thing -- and it's good to see those levels are dropping -- but it's only helpful when you can explain what effect those levels have on the population," Sieben said.
At least one environmental advocacy group, Clean Water Action, also will press to restore funding for PFC biomonitoring. "It's a public health issue," said Deanna White, the group's state director.
In 2008, when monitoring began, the health department identified three types of PFCs in the blood of study participants (PFOA, PFOS and PFHxS). Highest levels were found in older people, long-term residents and men. By 2010, levels of all three types of PFCs had fallen between 13 and 26 percent. Analysis of more data collected since then will be released in June.
The results coincide with a similar report earlier this year by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency showing that PFOS levels in the upper Mississippi River between Hastings and St. Paul had fallen significantly, except for near 3M's Cottage Grove plant.
The effects of PFCs on people are a matter of intense debate, and are at the center of the state's two-year-old lawsuit against 3M, which maintains the compounds have no effect on human health. Johnson said the decision to drop the PFC biomonitoring is unrelated to the suit and, in fact, Geary Olsen, an advisory panel member who is a scientist in 3M's Medical Department, supported continuing the program, meeting minutes show.
The panel's recommendation to the Legislature acknowledges the challenge. "Currently, scientists can't say definitively whether PFCs do or do not harm health," the reports says, "and this makes the explanation of what study results mean and providing health advice difficult."
That statement, and the decision to refocus biomonitoring programs in other areas, "underscores what 3M has been saying it believes all along -- the presence of certain PFCs, such as PFOS, is not a problem in the east metro area," said William Brewer III, partner at Bickel & Brewer and lead legal counsel for 3M. "The fact is, these chemicals have never been shown to cause adverse health effects at levels they are typically found in the environment."
Yet there is an apprehension factor. Comments from volunteers in the health department's PFC biomonitoring program, whose names are held in strict confidence, are included in the report.
"Follow-up needs to be done ... on myself and family members," said one.
Adds another: "I wish more was known on this for long-term health effects."
Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson