Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Minnesota's PFC Challenge Foreshadows Worldwide Contamination Issue

By: Duane Craig

In what could be the shape of things to come, the St. Paul, Minn., Metropolitan Council has asked its lawyers to explore legal options against 3M to help it meet new standards related to the discharge of perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, from its wastewater treatment plants, according to this article in MPRNews.

The council is second in line because the state is already suing 3M for damage to the environment. 3M used PFCs in its manufacturing processes at its Cottage Grove plant until 2002 when the substance turned up in blood samples of its workers. The state and the Metropolitan Council contend that 3M's use of PFCs led to the requirement that wastewater treatment plants be upgraded to remove the substance from water they treat. The costs of upgrades for St. Paul alone will be in the hundreds of millions and will increase operating costs so much that a 35-percent increase in rates will be needed.

But what makes this story so far reaching is the abundance of PFCs in the environment across the globe and how persistent they are. Called long-chain perfluorinated chemicals, these substances come in two subcategories: perfluoroalkyl sulfonates, or PFAS, and perfluoroalkyl carboxylates, or PFAC, according to the Environmental protection Agency. Within those subcategories are the more widely recognized substances such as perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA.

PFCs are in the global environment, wildlife and human populations, and they are termed as bioaccumulative, meaning their concentrations increase in lifeforms over time. Laboratory animals and wildlife have experienced reproductive, developmental and systemic effects from these chemicals. Although adverse effects in humans are not evident yet, it is believed that because they remain in the body for so long and continue to accumulate, it's only a matter of time before they begin to have negative health effects.

PFCs have been widely used for oil, soil and water resistance in products, in clothing and food wrappers and might exist in trace amounts in non-stick coatings on cookware. A study done by the EPA in Alabama found the highest levels of PFCs ever discovered in some fields there where sludge from wastewater treatment plants had been spread. Turns out, those treatment plants also processed large amounts of industrial wastes. Not only were the PFCs in the soil to a depth of four feet and more, but they were also present in grass, groundwater and the cattle that grazed in the fields, according to this article in Chemical and Engineering News.

The EPA has been tracking PFCs since at least the late 1990s when their presence in human blood was widely discovered, according to this FAQ. 3M was the worldwide principle manufacturer of PFOS until it terminated its production after discussions with the EPA. Minnesota has set up new state requirements governing how much PFOS can be released into the environment from wastewater treatment plants, and there is movement afoot across the globe to restrict or curtail the use and distribution of PFCs.
No doubt, many more communities will be facing the challenges of confronting PFC contamination specifically related to their wastewater treatment operations.

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