Don't panic, but Cloquet water has low level 'forever chemicals'
September 8, 2023
Cloquet made statewide news last month, and not in a good way. The city was one of 12 Minnesota cities that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed new limits on manmade chemicals dubbed “forever chemicals.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, Cloquet City councilors got an informational lecture on the chemicals and the possible impact on the city and its residents from public works director Caleb Peterson, who explained that the city’s five wells were tested, and one slightly exceeds the limit for PFAS in drinking water that will likely be proposed by the EPA.
Peterson had three main takeaways. First and foremost: Don’t panic. Right now all of Cloquet’s water sources meet federal and state standards.
“It’s not a reason to panic, not a reason to stop drinking the water, [and] rush out and buy bottled water,” Peterson told the council. “In fact, the EPA and the Health Department and the regulators themselves will tell you not to do that. Because the bottled water industry is not regulated for this, like the drinking water industry is, so there’s actually less oversight.”
Second: understand that PFAS are considered an “emerging contaminant of concern.”
“That means it’s actively being researched and the scientific understanding is changing “quite rapidly,” Peterson said.
“There were communities in the metro, for instance, that were dealing with this 10 years ago in higher-concentrated industrial discharges,” he added. “So it’s been around, but the numbers they believe might be concerning are beginning to shift in the last year or so.”
Third: PFAS can be found almost anywhere in the developed world. In water, air, the ground and the food we eat.
Formally known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, they are an entire family of manmade chemicals, more than 6,000 at last count, Peterson said. They’ve been commonly used since about the 1940s, but only more recently has research begun to show just how prevalent the chemicals are. PFAS are extremely stable and do not break down in the environment.
PFAS have been under discussion for the past decade or two in Minnesota, in large part because Minnesota-based company 3M is and has been one of the world’s largest makers of PFAS. The chemicals are found in nonstick cookware, waterproof and stain repellent fabrics as well as food packaging, fire extinguishing foam and personal care products including some shampoos, dental floss and cosmetics. Even swimming or otherwise recreating in contaminated lakes or rivers can lead to an increased amount of PFAS in the body.
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, different PFAS may impact health differently. The most consistently observed and strongest evidence for harmful impacts on human health is for immune suppression, changes in liver function, and lower birth weight. There are other potential effects. Research is ongoing, but indicates that fetuses and infants are the most vulnerable. PFAS accumulates in the body over time, and can be passed on from mother to child during pregnancy.
Health officials are trying to identify an exposure level over time that will not lead to any known side effects, Peterson said, and only looking at a select group of the chemicals. They’re advocating for very low levels.
“Modern technology doesn’t allow you to measure anything lower than what they’re proposing,” he said.
The number under discussion by the EPA at the moment is four parts per trillion. Only well No. 8 scored above that, at between 4.7 and 5 parts per trillion based on five tests over the past three years. The other wells are at or right around zero. There is no obvious source of contamination, Peterson said.
At-large councilor Lara Wilkinson pointed out that the PFAS levels of water coming out of a resident’s tap would be diluted because the water from Well 8 mixes with the other four wells before it is distributed from the city’s water tower.
“Well 8 is about 20 percent of the city’s water supply,” Peterson said, confirming that no one is getting water exclusively from one city well.
What are the city’s options?
City officials should start with research, Peterson said. And not embrace any technologies without pilot-testing them first, he added, giving Flint, Michigan as an example of a place that made a change — switched their water source — without testing how it would react with the local pipes.
“Things need to be tested in the field with actual conditions before we move forward with any kind of proposal for capital plans, just for the safety of our residents,” he said.
Estimates for treating water for PFAS with current technology put the cost as high as $400 per household, he said, which would be a huge cost. At the same time, he expects some funding sources will become available if and when the new standards are implemented.
While the simple answer might be to take Well 8 out of production, Peterson said water demands in Cloquet are rising, consistently. If the city found another source of water, it could eliminate the need for treatment. There are many possibilities.
“These things need to be understood so we can make sure we’re making wise decisions financially long-term for the utility and for our residents. We also want some time to really understand the pros and cons of each method,” he said. “I probably have more questions than answers myself, right now.”
Ward 5 councilor Lyz Jaakola said many of her constituents get their water from private wells, and asked for guidelines.
Peterson said they could look for a lab capable of testing for PFAS, but it’s fairly new and very sensitive technology. He cautioned that test results could be skewed by a person using gloves or a container with PFAS or even wearing water-resistant clothing.
Peterson said residents who are worried can research home treatment systems. Filters containing activated carbon or reverse osmosis membranes have been shown to be effective at removing PFAS from water supplies.
“If you are concerned, don’t take my word for it,” he said. “Go out and do some reading from reputable sources.”
He offered the following links: