When Cottage Grove, Minnesota’s drinking-water panic began, Mayor Myron Bailey was at a conference in Las Vegas trying to lure new business to town. “You are the future. Cottage Grove is the place,” proclaimed a banner in his booth. A screen flashed the iconic red logo of the town’s most famous corporate resident, 3M Co., whose 1,750-acre factory sits along the banks of the Mississippi River. Behind him, the city’s administrator kept stepping away to take phone calls. Finally she approached Bailey. “Mayor,” she said, “something is wrong.”
It was May 22, 2017, and the state health department wanted to give Bailey a heads-up. It was about to set a new, lower level for a type of unregulated chemical found in Minnesota’s drinking water. And Cottage Grove’s would exceed the new threshold. It said there was no emergency, but stricter limits would better protect infants and young children.
“I had a sinking feeling in my stomach,” Bailey recalled.
He had known for years that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or PFAS, pronounced “PEE-fas”), which don’t occur in nature, lingered in the water around Cottage Grove. 3M’s factory had been churning out some varieties since the 1950s for the water- and stain-repellant Scotchgard. 3M also sold its PFAS to other companies to make Teflon, outdoor gear, greaseproof food papers and firefighting foams. The company stopped using some kinds in 2002, but has since made others. And the same property that makes them so effective in consumer products—one of the strongest molecular bonds ever discovered—means they are almost impossible to get rid of and don’t break down in the environment.
While the so-called “forever” chemicals had long been detected in most people’s bodies, research has shown how they accumulate and can take years to leave. Even when excreted through urine, they persist. Scientists have tracked them in biosolids and leafy greens like kale. Recent studies have linked widely used PFAS, including the varieties called PFOA and PFOS, to reduced immune response and cancer. That new evidence had stirred Minnesota’s health department to act.
“There was always a perception in our community that cancer was caused by the drinking water,” Bailey said, but after the state’s announcement, “people freaked out.” He got dozens of angry calls and social-media posts a day. One woman suggested the water had killed her dog. Another asked if it was safe to breastfeed her baby. At first, he said, he didn’t know what to tell them.
From New York’s Hamptons to Spokane, Washington this year, dozens of communities are starting to ask similar questions. Water tests show that 110 million Americans have levels of PFAS in their water that the most cautious scientists call unsafe, according to the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization that advocates for public health issues. At the same time, new studies show how the chemicals can cause harm even at tiny doses. As awareness spreads, 3M has been named in dozens of lawsuits, several this year alone. Some target industrial sources and single out other companies, like DuPont, which once made PFOA itself. But most focus on airports where the chemicals were sprayed onto the ground in firefighting foams. They name 3M as a co-defendant, saying it made the chemicals.