MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Years of unchecked air pollution may have harmed the health of neighbors living near a Twin Cities plant.

For the first time, the Minnesota Department of Health said chemical emissions from Water Gremlin may have increased the risk of cancers and birth defects in the White Bear Township community. WCCO’s Jennifer Mayerle has been investigating problems at the plant for years.

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What the 89-page public health assessment boils down to is exposure to a now-banned chemical called TCE. Water Gremlin released it at excessive levels for more than 15 years which may have harmed the public’s health.

Health officials are telling the community air emissions released at the manufacturing plant may have increased their risk of some cancers, other medical issues, and heart defects in babies.

“It’s liberating to hear it. It doesn’t leave us with much consolation,” said Page Stevens, who lives near Water Gremlin.

Stevens lives with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, one of the cancers named a potential health effect from Water Gremlin’s prior TCE emissions.

“At least we have the potential for some answers as to why my health, and the health of so many people in this community have suffered,” Stevens said.

Sheri Smith is part of the Neighborhood Concerned Citizens Group. They’ve been steadfast in pushing for answers about the health impact.

“There’s plenty in there to substantiate what we believed all along was happening,” Smith said.

She says while this is validating, it brings new worries.

(credit: CBS)

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“I think about the fact that cancer doesn’t show up the next day after you’ve been exposed. I worry about myself, I worry about my children,” Smith said.

And there’s also a potential health risk to the employees who work at Water Gremlin. The assessment found that air inside Water Gremlin may be harming their health, and lead exposure may have harmed their health and their families.

Jim Kelly is with the Minnesota Department of Health.

“It’s very clear that these exposures rose to the point where they could have impacted people’s health, and that’s not OK, it’s not right,” Kelly said.

Water Gremlin gave this statement to WCCO: “We have worked diligently with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to address the issues summarized in this report. The safety of workers and the community is our top priority, and we continue to make significant investments to support that effort. We received the draft report late today and will provide comments to the MDH as requested.”

“I don’t think we can ever, ever, ever let our watch down,” Stevens said.

“All I can say is shame on you Water Gremlin,” Smith said.

The health department says there is no need to immediately see a doctor if you live near the plant, but it’s a good idea to mention at your next appointment. For most current and former neighbors, MDH found chemical exposure may be too low to cause problems.

The state could review the community’s cancer risk again, when more time has passed since the worst of the air pollution.

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There is also a public comment period so community concerns can be raised and documented.

Jennifer Mayerle