A NWNL NextGen Blog post by Rachel Rebello, Rutgers University, 2019.

All photos © Alison M Jones, unless otherwise noted.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts only student essays; sponsors a forum for its student contributors; and invites student proposals to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Rachel Rebello graduated from Rutgers University in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences. She enjoys learning about environmental issues and is currently pursuing a career in environmental law.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken our world, forcing governments to take unprecedented action, shutting down businesses and schools, and altering our way of life. All are efforts to safeguard public health. Yet, another threat to public health persists: PFAS, a silent killer that has been pervading our waterways.

Today, PFAS (pronounced PEE-fas) are already present in the blood of 99% of all Americans.1Environmental Working Group These “forever chemicals” contaminate key water bodies, including the Mississippi River. The iconic US river is responsible for “92% of [U.S.] agricultural exports;” is home to “25% of all fish species in North America;” and is a drinking water source for millions of US residents. The health of the Mississippi River is closely entwined with the health of our nation.2National River and Recreation Minnesota

A young boy enjoying a swim in the Mississippi River.

What are PFAS?

Previously used in various products to create non-stick surfaces, PFAS comprise a class of nearly 4,000 chemicals with links to cancer and various diseases.3Gibbens, Sarah PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) are the most-studied PFAS chemicals. Found in Teflon pans, fire-fighting foam, popcorn bags, etc., PFAS accumulate and persist in the environment for long periods of time.4United States Environmental Protection Agency In the case of the Mississippi River, which flows for 2,350 miles, buildup of PFAS can have far-reaching effects, as they also contaminate connected water bodies and nearby groundwater sources thus impacting a multitude of communities.

The Upper Mississippi River, downstream of  St Paul MN.

Background on the Mississippi River

The Mississippi River is divided into the Upper and Lower basin. The Upper basin begins at Lake Itasca, Minnesota and forms a junction with the Ohio River in Illinois. Continuing downstream, the Lower Mississippi accepts the White, Arkansas/Canadian and Red Rivers before passing New Orleans en route to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River also joins with the Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Des Moines and Illinois Rivers before its confluence with the even longer Missouri River. In total, the river borders ten states, and acts as a drainage basin for 31 states.5United States Environmental Protection Agency

Mississippi River and its Tributaries. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

The full extent of PFAS contamination of the Mississippi River is unknown

Mississippi River Lock & Dam #5, Winona MN

A large watershed like the Mississippi River Basin warrants a comprehensive information base. While PFAS have been in use since the 1950s, their effects on ecosystems in the Mississippi River Basin Area are not fully understood. To address this data gap, regional organizations like the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association are conducting PFAS sampling (for screening purposes only) in lock and dam sections, 17-21 of the river as part of a five state initiative. This data will inform states on concentrations of the contaminant in the upper portion of the river and demonstrate whether follow-up sampling will be necessary.6Lauren Salvato

“You have to look for a problem in order to identify a problem” – Sean Strom, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Minnesota boat launch onto the Mississippi River.

Although the full effects of PFAS on the agriculture and wildlife of this watershed is unclear, some states have developed fish advisories and impairment assessments. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin have placed restrictions on consumption of certain fish due to PFOS.7Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources These rules apply from the river’s Pool 2 to Pool 6, Pool 8, and the portion connected to the St. Croix River, at Stillwater MN. [Editor’s Note: In the Mississippi River, “pools” are the wide stretches of water backed up between the USACE’s series of locks and dams that ensure safe, year-round navigation.]

The Minnesota Department of Health limits personal intake to 1 meal/week for fish with a maximum PFOS concentration of 200 ppb, and 1 meal/month for fish with a maximum of 800 ppb.8Monson, Bruce According to Bruce Monson, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) scientist,  Pool 2 of the Mississippi River is also listed as “impaired” due to levels of PFOS detected in the water. As data collection efforts intensify throughout the country, we may see a growing number of US water bodies listed as “impaired,” as well as changes in monitoring standards. Already the MPCA is working to develop its own criteria for concentrations of PFOS in its assessments. The process of collecting data and refining standards is critical to developing an effective plan for regulation and cleanup of PFAS.  

Key PFAS contamination sites along the Mississippi River

As data collections efforts continue, we can look at likely sources of contamination such as military sites and PFAS manufacturing in industrial complexes, as seen in the Environmental Working Group’s interactive PFAS map. Military sites are of key interest because they often conduct training exercises involving PFAS containing fire-fighting foam.

— Industry: The 3M in Cottage Grove MN site 

Spanning 1,750 acres along the Upper Basin of the River, the 3M Cottage Grove Plant was the first company site to produce large quantities of PFAS. This 3M plant quickly became the city’s “largest private investor” beginning in the 1950’s.93M Cottage Grove Plant In 2012, the 53-km section of the river near this Cottage Grove Site, designated as Pool 2, was listed as “impaired,” due to high levels of PFOS.10Lauren Salvato

Map of Rock Island Arsenal, situated in the Mississippi River in Iowa. Photo from Rock Island Arsenal website.

— Military: The Rock Island Arsenal, between Davenport and Rock Island IA

Military bases frequently use fire-fighting foam which contains PFAS, during training exercises. Further downstream at Rock Island Arsenal military site, the Environmental Working Group, revealed reports showing PFOS and PFOA levels of 7.9 ppt, and 3.3 ppt respectively, in tests conducted between 2016 and 2018.11Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University While these numbers fall well below the EPA drinking water lifetime health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion, even small quantities of PFAS are dangerous as they accumulate in the body over time. Understanding how these affected areas are working towards remediation can help inform other impacted communities.

What has happened?

— 3M in Cottage Grove MN

Demanding accountability from companies responsible for manufacturing and dumping chemicals is an important step towards protecting rivers and remediating  damage. In 2012, the state of Minnesota reached an 850 million dollar settlement with PFAS manufacturer, 3M, for contamination of the Twin Cities East Metro Area.612Marohn, Kirsti The city of Lake Elmo, situated near the plant, also reached a 2.7 million dollar agreement in 2019 for contamination of key wells and drinking water sources.13Wilkes, Wendi The money for both claims will go towards residential water filters, and associated damages caused by contamination. As of today several PFAS manufacturers are engaged in legal battles.

— Military Sites

In the case of military sites, new legislative measures and legal suits are starting to pressure the US Department of Defense.14NYU School of Law The recently signed, National Defense Authorization Act for 2020 includes special PFAS provisions requiring the department to “prohibit use of PFAS-containing aqueous film forming foams (AFFF) during training exercises; phase out “PFAS- containing AFFF by 2024;” and work on cooperative agreements to address and remediate PFAS contamination in water near military sites.15Environmental Working Group In the courtroom, ongoing lawsuits, led by families in Bucks Count PA, aim to hold the military financially responsible for medical monitoring of communities near contaminated sites. 16Lerner, Sharon The success of these lawsuits would safeguard the health of local people, and hopefully deter future use of “PFAS replacement chemicals (e.g., GenX) which have similar properties) at military sites.17United States Environmental Protection Agency

What’s next?

Currently, the EPA has listed PFOS and PFOA (the most studied chemicals under PFAS) on the fourth candidate contaminant list.18United States Environmental Protection Agency With enough input during the public comment period these PFAS can be prioritized for future regulation.

On the legislative side, pending bills such as the H. 535. PFAS Action Plan, which recently cleared the House of Representatives and is now under consideration in the Senate, would address a number of issues related to PFAS, and could notably trigger cleanup of contamination sites.

Safeguarding our health means protecting our environment!

Bald eagle on the Mississippi River. Sean Strom (WI DNR) states bald eagles are excellent indicitator species and used to identify areas for testing fish for PFAS.

The Mississippi River is only one of the US natural resources affected by PFAS. As communities across the nation confront PFAS in their rivers, we as consumers must educate ourselves on consumer products containing PFAS, hold polluters responsible, and reach out to ask local representatives for strong legislation on PFAS cleanup and remediation.

Protecting our rivers is about more than just cleaning our waterways. It is about safeguarding the natural resources that we depend on to preserve public health.


3M Cottage Grove Plant. 3M. Accessed Feb 15th, 2020 by RR. https://www.3m.com/3M/en_US/plant-locations-us/cottagegrove/

 A Health Guide for Eating Fish in Wisconsin. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 2016. Accessed April 6th, 2020, by RR. https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/fishing/documents/consumption/ChooseWisely2016Web.pdf

Basic Information on PFAS. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Mar 3rd, 2016. Accessed Dec 11th, 2019 by RR. https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas

EPA Announces Proposed Decision to Regulate PFOA and PFOS in Drinking Water. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Feb 20th, 2020. Accessed Mar 18th,  2020 by RR. https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-announces-proposed-decision-regulate-pfoa-and-pfos-drinking-water

‘Forever Chemicals’: Teflon, Scotchguard and the PFAS Contamination Crisis. Environmental Working Group, Accessed Feb 5th, 2020 by RR. https://www.ewg.org/taxonomy/term/41/all

Gibbens, Sarah. Toxic ‘forever chemicals’ more common in tap water than thought, report says, Jan 4th, 2020. Accessed Feb 7th, 2020 by RR. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/01/pfas-contamination-safe-drinking-water-study/#close

Lauren Salvato, Policy and Programs Director for the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association.

Lerner, Sharon. EPA Allowed Companies to Make 40 New PFAS Chemicals Despite Serious Risks, Sep 19th, 2019. Accessed Feb 17th, 2020 by RR. https://theintercept.com/2019/09/19/epa-new-pfas-chemicals/

Marohn, Kirsti. And Sepic, Matt. 3M, Lake Elmo settle suit for $2.7M, land transfer in drinking water lawsuit. MPR News, May 21st, 2019. Accessed Feb 17th, 2020 by RR. https://www.mprnews.org/story/2019/05/21/3m-lake-elmo-reach-tentative-settlement-in-pfas-drinking-water-lawsuit

Mississippi River Facts. National River and Recreation Minnesota, Nov 24th, 2018. Accessed Feb 5th, 2020 by RR. https://www.nps.gov/miss/riverfacts.htm

Monson, Bruce. Perfluorochemicals in Mississippi River Pool 2: 2012 Update. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, May 2013. Accessed Mar 2nd, 2020, by RR. https://www.pca.state.mn.us/sites/default/files/c-pfc1-21.pdf

Navy Asks to Delay Landmark PFAS Case in Federal Court. Environmental Working Group, Nov 27th, 2019. Accessed Feb 17th, 2020 by RR. https://www.ewg.org/release/navy-asks-delay-landmark-pfas-case-federal-court

PFAS Contamination in the U.S. Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University. Accessed Feb 10th, 2020 by RR. https://www.ewg.org/interactive-maps/2019_pfas_contamination/map/

PFAS Federal Legislation. NYU School of Law, Jan 17th, 2020. Accessed Feb 17th, 2020 by RR. https://www.law.nyu.edu/centers/state-impact/press-publications/research-reports/pfas-federal-legislation

The Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed Feb 15th, 2020 by RR. https://www.epa.gov/ms-htf/mississippiatchafalaya-river-basin-marb

Wilkes, Wendi. PFAS Provisions in the 2020 NDAA. Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, Dec 10th,2019. Accessed Feb 18th, 2020 by RR. https://www.asdwa.org/2019/12/10/pfas-provisions-in-the-2020-ndaa/

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