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Chemicals found in Bemidji water and beyond associated with certain health conditions

For the last several years, a specific type of PFAS chemical developed by the 3M company has been a big topic for Bemidji. In the last year, the city built a treatment plant to remove the chemicals from its municipal water system, as PFAS were showing up in the wells. While it hasn't been established that these chemicals directly cause adverse effects, studies have shown health outcomes are associated with PFAS over periods of time.

For more than a decade, Bemidji has been aware of chemicals, commonly referred to as PFAS, in area groundwater and subsequently in wells, which lead the city to build a treatment plant to remove the chemicals from its municipal water system. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- Efforts by the city of Bemidji to address chemicals found in groundwater continued this week.

On Monday, the Bemidji City Council approved an incentive program for 19 property owners in the Bardwell Park neighborhood, an area south of Anne Street and west of U.S. Highway 71. To the west of the neighborhood is an area owned by the city with several wells providing water to the municipal system.

For more than a decade, the city has been aware of chemicals, commonly referred to as PFAS (perfluorinated alkylated substances), in that area's groundwater and subsequently, in the wells. The chemicals were formerly used in firefighting foams and likely originated at the adjacent Bemidji Regional Airport, which has been a training ground for local fire departments.

According to a statement from the Minnesota-based company 3M, the developer of the chemicals, the type of PFAS in Bemidji is called AFFF (aqueous film forming foam). The specific chemical was developed by the United States Navy in the early 1960s with support from 3M.

"It was a critical tool that served an immediate need for our service members facing life-threatening challenges in live combat missions and training exercises during the Vietnam War," 3M stated.


According to the statement, military aviation fires became harder to extinguish because of jet fuel. After 134 sailors died in a fire aboard the USS Forrestal in 1967, the military sought a partner to resolve the problem with a material that could effectively put out liquid fuel fires.

The Navy patented the technology behind the products and required its vessels to carry AFFF. The military specification governing fire fighting foam still requires the use of PFAS-based AFFF.

In 2000, 3M made the decision to phase out production of the chemicals, including products relying on AFFF.

In 2018, the state of Minnesota settled a lawsuit against 3M for $850 million. The case was launched in 2010, alleging the company's production of PFAS had damaged drinking water and natural resources in the Twin Cities metro area. According to a state-operated website, after legal expenses, $720 million from the settlement will be invested in water projects in the Twin Cities.

During the years of the lawsuit, the city of Bemidji was made aware of new health and environmental standards related to PFAS set by the state. In response, the city began exploring options, such as drilling a new well.

Because no suitable alternatives were found, the city moved forward with a facility to remove the chemicals being pumped from the wells. In summer 2020, the city approved the construction of the treatment plant at a cost of $7.4 million.

The construction of the facility was the first of two phases, with the second centered on expanding the plant so it can treat more water at a given time. Bidding on the second phase is anticipated in April 2022 with construction later that year and completion in summer 2023.


The back wall of the water treatment plant will come down for the second phase of construction, which will be finished by the summer of 2023. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

To assist with construction costs, the city was awarded $10.19 million from the state Legislature in the form of a 2020 bonding bill. Around the same time as the bonding bill was passed in a fall special session, the city took legal action against 3M.

In March, a settlement was reached between the city and 3M, with the company contributing $12.5 million to the treatment facility and related costs. One of those costs is the incentive program approved by the council.

Because there's a chance the plume of chemicals may move east toward private wells owned by Bardwell Park residents, the city is encouraging citizens to hook up to the municipal system, as the chemicals are successfully being removed . One piece of the program is a waiver of any water access charge, which comes to either $845 or $1,268.

The other incentive is reimbursement of up to $4,000 for the water connection charge. The program will be available until Nov. 1, 2022.

"I think the fact that we're dealing with a plume of PFAS makes this a unique situation," Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince said at a June 14 meeting. "I support this primarily because the funding is coming from 3M and it was designated for this purpose. It's a good-faith gesture for that community and it mitigates risks for the citizens."

Health impacts

The risks that come from PFAS are still under review by health agencies and scientists, but studies have been done over the last two decades.

In its comments to the Pioneer, 3M stated "the weight of scientific evidence from decades of research does not show the PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) or PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) cause harm in people at current or past levels. This includes studies monitoring 3M employees, who were typically exposed to higher levels of these materials than the general population.


"Public health data support this conclusion," 3M said. "For example, the Minnesota Department of Health has tracked the levels of PFAS in the blood of residents of the east metro area since 2008. In February 2018, after a decade of study, MDH provided an update on its findings, reporting that the overall cancer rate in Washington County was virtually identical to the statewide average, notwithstanding historically elevated levels."

On its website, though, MDH does note that in some studies, higher levels of PFAS in a person's body were associated with higher cholesterol, changes to liver function, a reduced immune response, thyroid disease and increased kidney and testicular cancers.

"It's a very large group of chemicals and some of them can accumulate in humans," said MDH Toxicologist Helen Goeden. "On health effects, we have some information on epidemiology studies. They look at humans who have been exposed to these compounds. There are challenges in evaluating humans because it's not a controlled study and some of the effects we think are linked to PFAS have other causes."

The causality of health impacts is something not yet proven and was cited in 3M's communication. As part of its statement, 3M referenced the following quote from the Center for Disease Control's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: "Although a large number of epidemiological studies have examined the potential of perfluoroalkyls to induce adverse health effects, most of the studies are cross-sectional in design and do not establish causality. Based on a number of factors, the available epidemiological studies suggest associations between perfluoroalkyl exposure and several health outcomes. However, cause-and-effect relationships have not been established for these outcomes."

Additionally, 3M states "while some studies may find links or associations with possible health outcomes, this is not the same as causation."

According to Goeden, causality is difficult to demonstrate in humans.

"We're not taking people and putting them in a controlled environment where the only thing they're exposed to is the PFAS compounds, we can't do those studies," Goeden said. "Additionally, some of the health effects, like cholesterol, are impacted by diets.

"Immune suppression is one of the effects that we have the strongest weight of evidence because we see it in multiple epidemiology studies with humans," Goeden said. "If you see something consistently and repeatedly in different populations and it seems to be associated with the same exposure, it adds to the weight of evidence. It's like cigarette smoking and lung cancer. It takes a certain amount of evidence before you can come close to saying 'we believe these two dots are connected.'"


The granular activated carbon tanks inside Bemidji’s new Water Treatment Facility remove PFA chemicals, which are pervasive in the environment and don't break down over time. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

On the CDC's website related to the matter, the agency states that while it's difficult to show the substances cause health conditions in humans, "scientific studies have shown that exposure to some PFAS in the environment may be linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals."

According to Goeden, the chemicals have the biggest impact when they build up over several years.

"If exposed over a long period of time, we have clear evidence that the accumulated chemicals are transferred through the placenta to a fetus," Goeden said. "It can also be transferred through breast milk for infants. Because it's accumulated, it can be more significant. The water guidance we have developed for PFAS over time has been based on keeping levels in infants lower."

Ongoing partnerships

To continue researching the chemicals and find out more about health impacts, the CDC in September 2019 established a cooperative agreement with seven partners across the country to study outcomes. The partners include:

  • The University of Colorado's School of Public Health.
  • The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
  • The Pennsylvania Department of Health, with assistance from the research agency RTI International.
  • The University at Albany-State University of New York and the New York State Department of Health.
  • School of Public Health at Rutgers University.
  • The Silent Spring Institute of Massachusetts.
  • The University of California.

As part of the study, the CDC is seeking to enroll at least 2,100 children and 7,000 adults from communities exposed to PFAS contaminated waters. A 2016 study by Harvard University researchers estimates that nearly six million Americans have had drinking water from sources with PFAS exceeding health guidelines.

Remediation and monitoring

In its comments to the Pioneer, 3M said it has "voiced support for regulating PFOA and PFOS under the Safe Drinking Water Act, including establishing maximum containment levels that are rooted in rigorous, reliable science."


On its website, 3M notes that it has invested more than $200 million in global PFAS remediation action. This includes testing and cleanup in areas where PFAS were manufactured and disposed of.

"The levels of PFOA and PFOS in people are declining," 3M stated. "Reduced exposure to these materials is evidenced in a series of studies that have occurred over the past 15 years involving the measurement of these compounds in the blood of the U.S. general population."

Todd Johnson, an engineer for the MDH's Drinking Water Protection Program, said five municipal systems across the state are actively removing PFAS. Moving forward, Johnson said the agency is looking to test more of Minnesota's waters for the chemicals.

"We'd like to have all public drinking water in the state sampled for PFAS," Johnson said. "We have a goal to sample 90% of them by 2025."

"As we've learned more about these chemicals, our guidance has changed, meaning more communities are impacted," Goeden said. "Our message is that these are ubiquitous and here in Minnesota they've been on our radar for some time. We've devoted a lot of resources to looking at these compounds and trying to make sure we protect the citizens of the state."

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