As PFAS proliferates in water supplies, experts break down the long-term health effects

As PFAS proliferates in water supplies, experts break down the long-term health effects

As PFAS proliferates in water supplies, experts break down the long-term health effects

PFAS chemicals: an invisible threat to our drinking water supply.

Just last month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced new limits for PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” in a city or community’s water supply.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency listed 22 water systems in 17 cities as exceeding the 4 parts per trillion limit.

“This is a need that is not only about today and tomorrow, it’s for decades to come,” declares Jeff Holtz, with the Lake Elmo City Council and a 3M settlement group member. “PFAS is a forever chemical. It will be in our aquifers for centuries.”   

Much of that contamination is linked to 3M, which is paying out billions of dollars to help clean it up.

The “forever chemicals” are slowly spreading, and that has Minnesotans — especially those in the east metro — voicing concerns.

Hastings residents spoke out about the drinking water supply during a public meeting earlier this month, attended by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota Department of Health and city officials.  

“It says in your own documentation that was just handed to me walking in that it’s not safe for drinking or cooking,” noted resident Beth Goff. “So are you saying we’re supposed to buy distilled water from Walmart?”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say long-term exposure to PFAS is linked to kidney and testicular cancers, hypertension during pregnancy, increased cholesterol and other issues.

But at what level does your tap water become a health concern?

“It takes years to accumulate in your blood with some of these PFAS,” says Kristine Klos, an MDH toxicologist.

She says health problems do surface, but typically after years of daily consumption of PFAS-contaminated water.

“We can’t exactly say 10 years or five or 15 or 20 because the concentrations are different and we don’t have that data per concentration or dose,” Klos explains. “It’s not a bright line, but just some people develop this as an association. So we don’t know if it’s a cause, but associated.”

Klos says kidney cancer, for example, is triggered after what she calls “a lifetime of exposure.”

But she notes there are big concerns about vulnerable populations, including newborns, young children, and pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.

“There is more risk to infants and fetuses because they’re growing developmentally. These are our most sensitive two groups,” Klos says. “PFAS can cross the placenta. So that means when babies are born, they already have the same level of PFAS in their blood serum as their mother.”

She advises if you have young children or infants or are pregnant, you might want to consider treating your water with filtration or getting it elsewhere.

“If it’s in their water and you’re making formula for them, then they’re getting more PFAS that way,” Klos says. “If you’re breastfeeding, it also concentrates in breast milk, so they’re getting it in breast milk, too.”

RELATED: Health officials issue updated guidance on fish consumption due to PFAS, pollution concerns

But what about bottled water?

Klos says the FDA doesn’t yet have regulations for PFAS in bottled water.

“Up until now, and even right now, there’s no regulation on bottled water, so it’s just a big question mark,” she notes. “So we just don’t know PFAS levels in bottled water.”  

Several municipalities in the east metro are spending millions to build plants to filter out PFAS chemicals from the commercial water supply, but those could take years to build.

Hastings, Sauk Rapids and Woodbury all requested millions in state funding to help with the construction of water treatment plants, new wells or storage facilities.

But the end of the legislative session came and went without passage of a bonding bill, meaning no state money.

Hastings city staffers are planning to build three treatment plants, at a cost of nearly $69 million.

Now, they’re scrambling to find funding.

“The biggest thing we’re starting to realize is that we may have to look at our own ratepayers,” says Ryan Stempski, the city’s public works director. “We have a workshop coming up next month where we’re going to have some of those hard conversations about what would happen to our water rates in Hastings, to be able to fund the required improvements to provide safe and clean drinking water to our community.”

Hastings officials say they’re also considering building one treatment plant instead of three to save money — with the idea of finding additional funding in the future for the rest.

Stempski says with the money in place, the entire project could be done in about three years.

Holtz says a good first step is to have your drinking water tested for PFAS.

In the meantime, if you have concerns, the health department recommends home filtering systems you can install on a faucet, under a sink, or at a point of entry to protect the entire house.

RELATED: Homeowner’s guide to filtering out PFAS from water supply

“Those solutions right now consist of a carbon filter, which is also called a GAC filter,” Holtz says. “Reverse osmosis works as well, and also what’s called ion exchange.”

Experts say carbon filters use charcoal to absorb any organic molecule that passes by it, including PFAS.

Reverse osmosis pushes water through a semi-permeable membrane to filter out particulates.

In ion exchange, contaminants are attracted to beads of resin, which keep the materials passing through a water system.

“All three of those work to eliminate the PFAS family of chemicals down to levels where we cannot detect,” Holtz says. “And so that’s how we are protecting residents right now.”

You can find out more about home protection from PFAS here.