Profiles in Prevention -- MN Dept of Health Contaminants of Emerging Concern

Minnesota Department of Health

The Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CEC) Initiative at the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) is funded by Minnesota's Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. The amendment expanded or accelerated important water improvement and protection activities around the state like the CEC Initiative.

Prior to the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, CEC was limited to developing health-based guidance values for contaminants that have already been found in groundwater. This was missing an important piece of the puzzle – a better understanding of contaminants before they enter our groundwater and an ability to provide a risk context for contaminants in surface waters, which several large communities in Minnesota use for their drinking water. Thanks to the Legacy Amendment, the CEC Initiative will continue to develop guidance for contaminants that have been found in groundwater, surface water, and soil while also doing the same for pollutants that have not yet been found in Minnesota, but have potential to enter our waters.

A significant portion of CEC’s work is concentrated in developing “guidance”. That means working with stakeholders (agency partners, nonprofits, research institutions, and the public) to identify contaminants of emerging concern in Minnesota. Then investigate the likelihood of exposure to contaminants in drinking water, the potential health effects of exposure to those contaminants in drinking water and if applicable set guidance for levels of the contaminants in drinking water.

Minnesota Department of Health sets health-based guidance values for about five contaminants per year. Guidance values are the level of a contaminant that can be present in drinking water with little or no health risk. The state does not use guidance values to regulate water quality, though these may be useful for situations where no regulations exist (which is pretty common for a lot of emerging contaminants). Guidance values are calculated to protect the most sensitive populations and those group facing the highest exposure.

Though CEC’s guidance values are specific to drinking water, the department encourages people to reduce their exposure to emerging contaminants and tries to provide actions people can take to prevent environmental pollution. Many of our daily activities impact water quality – understanding that can help our water. The CEC Initiative also provides outreach and education grants to local/regional governments, nonprofits, colleges/universities, and other organizations to expand our pollution prevention efforts.

Through these projects, CEC grantees work on issues or topics in emerging contaminants that are specific and relevant to their audience. Grantees have developed outreach toolkits encouraging pharmaceutical take back and proper household hazardous waste disposal, educated septic system owners about how chemicals used inside the home can affect their septic system, encouraged reduced and safer pesticide use, and more.

What it took to accomplish this?

Key to CEC’s work was the commitment by Minnesota voters in 2008 to raise taxes for 25 years to protect our drinking water resources, protect and enhance natural habitats, improve our parks and trails, and preserve our cultural heritage. The vote to confirm the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment affirms the cultural importance of water in our “Land of 10,000 Lakes” and the desire to provide safe and sufficient drinking water for all Minnesotans.

CEC’s work also relies on engaged stakeholders who tell MDH what contaminants they want reviewed for guidance development. These stakeholders then apply for outreach and education grants or use MDH’s outreach materials as a part of their own robust water communication, education, and advocacy efforts.

CEC has a dynamic team of professionals including toxicologists, research scientists, and social scientists who have to be creative and nimble to work in the often uncharted territories of emerging contaminants-- in many circumstances there can be limited data or examples for us to work from. 

The barriers CEC needed to overcome?

There are 80,000 chemicals in production; CEC can review one at a time (or a very small number at a time), amounting to about five new guidance values per year. Even a lot of MDH’s communication efforts are on a chemical-by-chemical basis.

Science on emerging contaminants changes as we learn more; so CEC is often revisiting guidance or information they have released to improve or add clarity. It also means that communities that are impacted by contaminants that CEC has created guidance for sometimes feel like a situation is constantly changing, when in fact we're just learning more about it as time goes on (PFAS in the East Metro, for example).

Limited data for a lot of emerging contaminants

Traditionally, we have thought of pollution as the willful disposal of a large volume of something "poisonous" into the environment; usually with a clear party responsible. With emerging contaminants, many of these chemicals come from the everyday, acceptable use of typical products. Our environments, and especially our waters, reflect our lifestyle so all of the chemicals we use in our daily lives or in the products we use show up in the water. It can be really hard to show this connection sometimes.

Lessons learned

From a communication/pollution prevention perspective, CEC is often surprised about how little people know about the "human water cycle"-- how water gets from the environment to our homes and back out again; how water moves through the human body and the affect that has on contaminants and health; etc. People are really familiar with the "condensation, precipitation, collection/infiltration, evaporation" natural water cycle many of us learned in school, but they are a lot less familiar with how our water use fits into or disrupts that cycle. We are starting to spend more time talking about this, but we could do more.

What comes next?

CEC will be working to understand disinfection byproducts and how to evaluate them as a group to provide overall guidance on them as a class of chemicals rather than evaluating a single chemical at a time. MDH knows, historically, drinking water disinfection has led to significant public health improvements; reducing the rates of illness and death from waterborne pathogens dramatically, so CEC wants to be measured and intentional about how we approach them.

Microplastics! CEC has been given additional funding by the Minnesota legislature to begin to explore microplastic pollution in Minnesota and the potential effects on environments, ecosystems, and human health.