Seven-month-old Josie Bailey could be heard cooing and gurgling in the back of the packed conference room during a public meeting June 7 on perfluorochemicals in south Washington County drinking water.

Josie was brought there by her mother Elyse Bailey, who is concerned with what the PFC exposure could mean for the children raised in Cottage Grove.

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When the Minnesota Department of Health lowered recommended safety levels for perfluorochemicals PFOS and PFOA to half the national standards, many Cottage Grove families concerns about health effects grew.

"I raised four children in Cottage Grove," Bailey said. "I'm not concerned with the water ban, but with what this could mean (for their health)."

Most residents at the open house shared similar concerns about health implications of PFC exposure.

James Kelly, the Minnesota Department of Health's environmental health manager James Kelly said they based their new recommended levels conservatively on a study they spent most of the past year completing. The health risk limit - or the level of PFCs determined to cause little or no health risk - was based on effects on the most vulnerable, such as babies, fetuses, and breastfeeding mothers.

"(The levels) are overprotective, and we acknowledge that and admit that," Kelly said.

The recommended levels of 35 parts per trillion PFOA and 27 parts per trillion PFOS were based on animal studies. PFCs don't break down in the environment or in humans, which causes them to build up over time.They found some developmental effects in the animals during testing, and some studies suggest that high PFC levels in the body can lead to liver issues, reduced immune reactions, thyroid disease and kidney or testicular cancer.

Bets Thorkelson said she specifically worries about cancer in the area.

"I notice a lot of cancer in the neighborhood," she said, adding that her husband has testicular lymphoma and she has had cancer twice.

MDH data show that Washington County has the sixth highest cancer rate in the state, though rates do not vary widely across the state. The state rate of cancer is 458 cases per 100,000 residents, and the Washington County is 486.

"I still feel worried," Bailey said after the MDH presentation. "But I feel good about the research the MDH has done for future generations."

Many residents at the open house - and later, council members during a workshop of MDH, MPCA and city officials - also voiced frustration with the dramatic reaction the value change necessitated.

Kelly said the process could not have been done gradually.

"I know it seems like we flipped a switch and put this out all at once ... and we understand the position that puts our partners in, and it's very difficult and we're very sensitive to that," he said. "That was the point where we completed the process, and once we complete the process and are able to say we're confident in these values, then we are honor bound and duty bound to release them."

The MDH first approached the city with the issue the week of May 22, Kelly said, a day before the new values were publicly announced and the watering ban went into effect in Cottage Grove.

Troubled waters

Though the city and the MDH have ensured residents that municipal water is safe to drink, many residents are sticking to bottled water or refrigerator-filtered water.

Those with private wells sampled with higher levels will receive bottled water until a filtration system can be installed.

Well sampling will continue throughout the summer, MDH hydrogeologist Ginny Yingling said, and will continue to sample outward to see how far out contamination goes.

Homes that will have private wells tested will receive a letter from the MDH. Yingling said in the past letters have been sent from other third-parties trying to scam homeowners, and to only respond to letter from the MDH.

Yingling said during testing they have discovered a "hotspot" of private wells with above recommended PFC levels along Harkness Avenue. Though the MDH doesn't currently know the explanation for the increased levels in this area, Yingling said there are multiple possibilities, including unidentified connections to 3M or an unrecorded dumping site near Harkness.

For most areas with higher PFC levels, the concentration has been mostly stable, though Yingling said they are still seeing some increase in Grey Cloud Island and the southern end of the county.

Kelly said produce and livestock don't generally build up PFCs the same as humans do, and are safe to consume if they have been given water with higher levels.