In the late 2000s, it became evident that "forever chemicals" were present in the bloodstream of almost every American. As a result, officials in Minnesota pressed 3M to lessen pollutants spilled into the Mississippi River at its manufacturing facility southeast of the Twin Cities. 3M is a global conglomerate that created these extremely toxic chemicals for use in their wide range of products, from adhesives to medical, building materials, and home cleaning supplies. Lawsuits spurred 3M to reduce pollution and clean up forever chemicals at locations close to another of its factories. These chemicals are known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds (PFAS). In Illinois, it’s a different story. A 3M facility on the Mississippi River roughly 15 miles from the Quad Cities has been contaminating the air and water for more than a decade. Illinois state regulators have repeatedly failed to hold the company responsible.
The harmful effects of forever chemicals are just now becoming apparent. According to David Cwiertny, an engineering professor and director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination at the University of Iowa, "It's difficult to comprehend how devastating this could be for people in the Mississippi watershed and the river's ecosystem." Cancer and other diseases are brought on by certain forever chemicals that build up in human blood, and take several years to exit the body. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that two of the PFAS that have been examined the most are so hazardous that there is truly no safe level of exposure.
A Chicago Tribune investigation revealed that Illinois officials knew about environmental pollution at a 3M facility in Cordova, Illinois as early as 2008. The federal government neglected to look into the well-documented threats in other regions where PFAS are manufactured, despite having a legal obligation to protect human health and the environment. The chemicals appear to have traveled well beyond the 3M facility in Cordova.
According to 3M business spreadsheets given to the EPA, testing done by 3M contractors found at least two PFAS in 68 of 72 private wells and three of eight public water systems tested in the states of Illinois and Iowa in the summer of 2022. Almost 20 million people rely on the Mississippi for their drinking water. In the Quad Cities and two dozen other river communities, alarming quantities of toxins have been identified, the majority of them residing downstream from the 3M facility in Cordova. On the Illinois side of the Mississippi, quantities of one PFAS were discovered in private wells where they were up to 6,250 times greater than the EPA's most current health guidelines. These were the most concerning concentration levels recorded near any of the company’s facilities.
In November 2022 the EPA announced that agency officials require 3M to monitor water for chemicals up to 10 miles away from the chemical plant and in the Quad Cities. This is the first time that the EPA has publicly commented on the Cordova plant. Around 300,000 people in Illinois and Iowa live within the expanded water testing area. Within three miles of the PFAS plant, 3M is offering in-home water treatment systems to people who rely on well water and is working to ensure that the nearest community, Camanche, Iowa, has access to clean water.
A company spokesperson stated that wastewater from the facility would be treated using a system that 3M installed in October 2022, which is anticipated to decrease the quantity of PFAS released into the Mississippi by 95%. In response to mounting criticism and legal action regarding the alleged negative effects the chemicals have on human health and the environment, 3M announced it would stop producing the chemicals and stop using them by the end of 2025.
[Sources: Chicago Tribune; University of Iowa; Associated Press; Madison.com]