Our view: More research needed on chemical in drinking water
We were a little naive one year ago when we first learned that much of south Washington County's drinking water contained a newly detected chemical.
Little was known about the 3M-manufactured chemical, perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA), and it would take some time to study whether it was safe to consume, officials said.
That seemed reasonable. We're not scientists, but we understood that they needed to set up experiments and gather data.
After that, we expected them to return with a definitive answer on what the chemicals do and how they affect people. Then the Minnesota Department of Health would use that research to give us a number that would tell people whether their water was safe to drink without a filter.
We would reach a place where south Washington County residents' questions would have answers based in scientific evidence.
Well, the health department did issue its official number last week (most of you can go ahead a drink your water unfiltered, they say) yet many unanswered questions remain. In fact enough questions remain unanswered that we think setting a health-based value is premature.
The health department says it based its new health-based value on three studies of rats and mice, a 28-day study, a 90-day study and a developmental study of mice exposed before birth.
This is a good start, but what people here really want to know is how this chemical has affected humans. That would require comparing a group of people that has consumed PFBA through drinking water with a control group to determine what the health effects are.
The Minnesota Health Department is starting up a biomonitoring pilot program this summer due to a mandate from the Legislature, but people who have consumed just PFBA aren't eligible to participate. Only those who have private wells contaminated with two other PFCs are eligible. Further, all the project will do is measure the amount of the chemicals in peoples' bodies over time. It will not answer any questions about health effects, according to the press release on the project. Once again, there exists a huge gulf between the information that will be available, and the information needed to determine whether these chemicals are really safe to consume.
We understand that the health department is not a research organization, and that they depend on research from other entities, but that's no excuse for making recommendations based on incomplete information.
Now, more than ever, we understand the comment made by John Linc Stine, director of the Environmental Health Division of the Minnesota Department of Health, at a meeting with local and federal officials about the issue at the end of May 2007.
"The public perception of science is such that they think that it's an absolute truth and of course science is a great variability of truths and additional questions and you need to evaluate all of that information in light of what it tells you and what it doesn't tell you," Stine said.
In the meantime, as local residents wait for the research to be done that would let them know their water is safe to drink, there is one very practical study the Health Department has conducted. It's on water filtration systems, and which ones work to remove the chemicals from drinking water.