MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — For months, WCCO has demanded answers in the Water Gremlin pollution investigation.
The manufacturing plant had to pay a $7 million settlement for releasing elevated levels of a cancer-causing chemicals into the air for more than 15 years.
WCCO has learned there’s another health issue that has plagued the company, and it’s bringing light to gaps in communication between state agencies. Jennifer Mayerle found plant workers have been bringing lead home, exposing their homes and families.
Mom Amber Curry calls her daughter Ja’Naea a ball of energy. She was alarmed to learn a health provider found the 3-year-old had a concerning level of lead in her blood.
“Kind of freaked out at first because I didn’t know what it meant. I’ve never dealt with it before. I was like, ‘Is she going to be OK? Is something going to be wrong with her?’” Curry said.
Ramsey County Health Department found Ja’Naea is one of 11 connected kids with a blood lead level over 5 micrograms per deciliter. That’s the level where the county gets involved.
“One of our jobs is to go out and identify what the source of lead may be,” Zack Hansen, director of environmental health in Ramsey County, said.
While older paint is the principal cause of lead exposure, the children’s common connection here: Water Gremlin. The manufacturing plant makes lead fishing sinkers and lead battery terminal posts.
“We’ve identified several children that had parents that worked at Water Gremlin, so we started working with them and then contacted the company about employee education and working to inform employees about proper behaviors at work to not bring lead home,” Hansen said.
Hansen says there are different ways Water Gremlin employees could have transferred the lead.
“It may be through on your shoes, or work boots. It may be if you carry your cellphone into the area and it gets dusty and your child plays with it,” Hansen said.
Hansen reports the 11 kids from nine families had levels from 6 to 16.
He reveals catching high blood levels is critical, as kids are more at risk from having lead in the system. According to the CDC, there’s no safe blood lead level in children and effects cannot be corrected.
“In kids it’s primarily a neurotoxin. That means it attacks the nervous system or the brain and it can result in actually a lower IQ, it can result in slower development of the child. It can affect behavior,” Hansen said.
WCCO discovered Water Gremlin has a history of issues with lead and employees. Minnesota Department of Health data over the last five years shows more than 75% of employees tested had blood lead levels over 5. A smaller percentage had levels over 25 micrograms per deciliter. But WCCO found lead level problems with employees date back 30 years.
And that’s not all. In 2015, MnOSHA found two violations at Water Gremlin related to lead. A complaint resulted in the serious violations. Documents show MnOHSA found Water Gremlin did not provide or require personal protection equipment for temporary workers exposed to lead and inspectors found accumulations of lead on several surfaces.
In a statement, Water Gremlin’s vice president of international manufacturing at Water Gremlin, Carl Dubois told WCCO:
“Water Gremlin baselines existing blood lead levels for new employees and routinely monitors employee blood lead levels to ensure that we have a safe working environment. None of our employees are above OSHA action levels for blood lead.
Any lapse in employee industrial hygiene practices is the top contributing factor to an increase in an employee’s blood lead level and the inadvertent home exposure. To ensure the safety of our employees and their families, hygiene training and policies have long been in place. If necessary, the company will utilize disciplinary action for employees who do not follow those policies. Since we first engaged with Ramsey County in August 2018, Water Gremlin has enhanced these policies and implemented a continuous employee awareness campaign to reaffirm their importance. We are eager to hear from the County to find out if this campaign has made a positive impact on family wellness.”
But Curry thinks it illustrates the company’s lack of safety and oversight.
“Who do you blame for this?” Mayerle asked.
Curry answered, “Water Gremlin.”
Curry’s husband has since left the company. She hopes her daughter’s blood lead level continues to drop.
“I’m just hoping that hers just goes down and it doesn’t affect her,” Curry said.
The work with kids of Water Gremlin employees began in 2017 and continues today. MDH had the blood lead level information before major pollution problems were discovered at Water Gremlin. MDH did contact MnOSHA about the lead issue but never contacted the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the regulatory agency over Water Gremlin. The reason given: the exposure was from inside the facility and not a release into the community.
MDH now tells WCCO, “In hindsight, that information could have been shared with MPCA, as they also regulate lead use at the facility. At the time the worker/children’s lead exposure issues were raised, however, we were not aware of the MPCA’s other concerns with Water Gremlin.”
This again raises the question: Could state agencies have done more sooner to raise the red flag and protect the community?