MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — For the first time, state health leaders are answering questions about a pollution investigation WCCO has been tracking for months.
We’ve been sharing stories about a manufacturing plant in White Bear Township that emitted a cancer-causing chemical called TCE for at least 17 years.
Now, the Minnesota Department of Health is opening up about what they know about Water Gremlin’s mistake and the impact on our health.
“There’s no doubt that what happened, as a result of the activity of Water Gremlin, it should not have happened,” Jim Kelly manager of environmental surveillance and assessment at the Minnesota Department of Health said. “People were exposed to TCE. They weren’t aware of it. The levels apparently were higher than we would have liked to have seen.”
White Bear Township and surrounding neighborhoods fall in the area of exposure concern, and the community has repeatedly voiced its concerns — and Kelly has heard them.
“I think they have a right to be concerned. It’s our job to bring them the best answers we can based on data and science we have,” Kelly said.
When asked if the actions of Water Gremlin have caused real health issues in people living in that community, Kelly said they can’t rule it out.
That’s alarming for Page Stevens who was diagnosed with leukemia and non-hodgkins lymphoma.
“It’s put a whole different nagging twist to why I’m sick,” Stevens said.
She’s part of a community we brought together to listen to — and they’re demanding answers.
The Health Department did release a report that looked at cancer occurrence over a 10-year period for 2007 to 2016 in the areas surrounding Water Gremlin. The study found the area is “virtually identical to cancer rates in the Twin Cities Metro area.”
“Based on the data, we’re not seeing excess cancers especially the cancers we know are associated with TCE such as kidney cancer, liver cancer,
nonhodgkins lymphoma,” Kelly said.
The report didn’t account for people who work in the area, but live elsewhere; those who have moved away; and others factors.
Still, Kelly calls the report “overall reassuring,” but admits it doesn’t provide all the answers, like if an individual’s cancer was caused by exposure to TCE.
“We know people were exposed, and while I can’t say that kind of exposure caused some kind of a health effect that they’ve maybe experienced, I can’t automatically say it hasn’t either. That’s really the best of the science that we can bring to this at this point,” Kelly said.
Now we’ve learned lead is another chemical of concern.
MDH checked and found 3.6% of kids of Water Gremlin employees had an elevated blood lead level.
They’re working with health partners to address exposure and take-home lead from the facility.
“That’s concerning all the way around,” Kelly said. “That reflects some of their work practices needed or need to be improved to try to prevent that sort of thing.”
For now, the focus of MDH is to provide a very concerned community with the best possible information.
“We have no way to predict what the community’s experience might be moving forward,” Kelly said. “All we can do is let people know what happened, to give them the information they can use to help protect their health in the future.”