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Understanding the Impacts of "Forever Chemicals" in our Water Supply: An Interview with Sophie Greene

Water is poured into a glass. There is a light blue background.

This week, John and Heidi met with Sophie Greene, PFAs coordinator at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. PFAs are nearly indestructible chemicals that linger in our water systems and environment and pose health risks for humans. Sophie presented as part of the Practical Water Wisdom series with Itasca Waters: you can register for upcoming learning sessions here.

This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

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Heidi: Sophie, thanks for being with us.

Sophie: Thank you so much for having me on the show.

Heidi: So, you're the coordinator. I imagine that you're keeping track of all these awful chemicals out there, and you're reigning them in for us. Is that true?

Sophie, laughing: That's pretty much the job description! There's a lot of activity and many levels of government related to these chemicals in our community. My job is to keep everybody connected and hopefully moving in the same direction.

Heidi: What are PFAs?

Sophie: That's a great question. PFAs are a big family of over 5,000 individual chemicals that all have fluorine atoms in them. What's so unique about them is that they're incredibly persistent in the environment. When we release them into the environment, they just stay there: they don't degrade on their own. The other unique thing about them is that some are incredibly toxic to humans. It's not a good combination of released chemicals sticking around for a long time and impacting our biological systems even at low levels of exposure.

John: Where are PFAs coming from?

Sophie: Unfortunately, we've used these chemicals since the 1940s. Again, because they don't degrade when you use them, those chemicals originating in the 1940s are still floating around our environment. But we're also using them all over the place today. They are used in firefighting foam, cosmetics, food wrappers, and all types of products throughout our economy.

John: So, they don't degrade; are they inert in the sense that they don't combine with other elements? For instance, you can't add an oxygen or hydrogen atom to them and get them to be something else?

Sophie: Exactly: they stay in their current form for a really long time. So, many bad things that we use that impact our bodies will react with oxygen or sunlight and break down or turn into a chemical that's less bad for us. But PFAs don't interact with sunlight. They don't interact with oxygen. They just stick around in their current form, and they can trick our bodies into doing some not-great things. They can end up giving us cancer, immune problems, thyroid problems, or pregnancy problems: they can cause a lot of issues in our bodies.

John: Woah. Where do we come in contact with these?

Sophie: Yeah, that's an essential thing for people to understand. One way people get exposed to these chemicals is if they end up in our drinking water. Because they stick around for a long time, they move through the soil, the rainwater, and into the groundwater. Unfortunately, a lot of people's drinking water is contaminated with these chemicals, and we drink an average of two liters of water a day between what we drink and eat. So, that's a lot of exposure. Some of them also seem to build up in fish tissue, so if you like to go fishing and eat the fish, and you fish in a contaminated lake or stream, that can be a serious source of exposure. We're beginning to realize that PFAs may be in low levels in other types of food. As I mentioned, they're used in food packaging: for instance, people who eat microwave popcorn might have more exposure. We can be exposed in many different ways through what we eat and drink. It's a little bit of a mess right now.

Heidi: So, Sophie, if you came to my house, you wouldn't eat the microwave popcorn I offered to you. What other things might you avoid that I might have in my house?

Sophie: That's a good question. If I'm thinking about reducing my exposure to PFAs, I'm first going to ensure that the state department of health has checked my drinking water and that they say it's at safe levels. If I hunt or fish, the next thing I would do is look up the safe consumption advisories that the state issues before I go hunting or fishing. I would check my favorite lake on the Department of Health website and make sure there aren't fish consumption advisories for that lake. Other than that, there's not a huge amount we can do to reduce our exposure because these chemicals are so ubiquitous in the environment. You can try to purchase things that are free from PFAs, but unfortunately, there aren't any labeling requirements right now. For instance, I can't tell the difference between a bag of microwave popcorn in the store that has PFAs in the lining and one that doesn't.

Heidi: In your role at the pollution control agency, do you think the government should enact labeling requirements?

Sophie: That's a really important point: there is a huge amount of activity right now at all levels of government. We are working to ensure that we are communicating with the public about this issue and putting in place some regulations and requirements on companies about what they can and can't use or release into the environment. All this is happening right now in complicated and time-consuming rule-making actions. They take a long time, but they're really important. We've been doing this for a few years now, trying to push forward different types of regulations and educate the public about the issue.

John: This is so sobering! How would a person go about testing for PFAs? Is it relatively simple: take a water sample and send it in for analysis?

Sophie: The good news is that all of our public drinking water systems in Minnesota are testing for PFAs and reporting the results on a dashboard on the Department of Health's website. [You can view this here: PFAs dashboard]. So, if you drink city water, you can go there to look up your PFAs levels, and you'll find helpful information to interpret what those results mean. For instance, they'll tell you if you're in the clear, have some PFAs but not at levels of concern, or if you've exceeded what they call a 'health index' and the system has to take action to reduce concentrations. However, if you have a private well, that well's safety is the property owner's responsibility. Unfortunately, testing can run between $200-$500. The Department of Health can work with you to find labs and train you on how to take the samples to ensure they aren't contaminated by your clothing or collection method.

Heidi: Are there things you're still learning about PFAs?

Sophie: Oh, it's impossible to stay up to date with all the new science that's coming out about these chemicals. As I mentioned, there are over 5,000 individual chemicals in the family, so we're learning more about each individual chemical every day. And, of course, the environment is a complicated place. It's complicated how all the different wildlife and ecosystems work together. It's complicated how human biology works. It's complicated to understand all the various industries that exist and how they interact with the environment and community. The government is working on a huge challenge, and there's a lot to learn every day.

Heidi: How did you end up doing this work?

Sophie: Well, my background is in chemistry, and I've always been drawn to different types of chemical problems. When choosing a career, I wanted to work on environmental issues because they're so complicated and challenging. The environment deserves a lot of respect: we use it for our food and drinking water every day, and it's something that a lot of folks have a spiritual and emotional connection to. I wanted to apply science to making sure that we're coexisting with the environment in a healthy way.

Heidi: Do you have hope?

<laughter>

Sophie: Yes, I have hope! This is a tragic story, and it's unfortunate that we've gotten to this place. But, as I mentioned, the wheels are turning: there's a lot more public interest in this topic, which is fantastic. People are talking to their representatives and their local governments. They're talking to their public water utilities, and they're talking to their congressional representatives. We're getting a lot more traction on how to stop releasing these chemicals into the environment. So, I'm hopeful that the tide is turning, and we will eventually wrap our arms around this problem. It'll take a lot of money, and it's going to take a lot of persistence and dedication from a lot of different people.

Heidi: You can learn more about this and other topics at the Practical Water Wisdom series hosted by Itasca Waters. That was Sophie Greene from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Thanks for your time!

Sophie: Thank you.

Heidi Holtan has worked at KAXE/KBXE for over 20 years. She currently helms the Morning Show as News and Public Affairs Director. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North. In 2018 Heidi received the “Building Bridges in Media” award from the Islamic Resource Group for her work on KAXE/KBXE hosting conversations about anti-Muslim movements in rural Minnesota.
As a mail carrier in rural Grand Rapids, Minn., for 35 years, John Latimer put his own stamp on a career that delivered more than letters. Indeed, while driving the hundred-mile round-trip daily route, he passed the time by observing and recording seasonal changes in nature, learning everything he could about the area’s weather, plants and animals, and becoming the go-to guy who could answer customers’ questions about what they were seeing in the environment.
Sarah Mitchell (she/they) joined the KAXE team in February of 2022. Sarah creates the Season Watch Newsletter, writes segment summaries for the website, and coordinates our Engaging Minnesotans with Phenology project. With a background in wildlife biology, Sarah enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, aquatic invertebrates, or the short-tailed shrew (did you know they can echolocate?).