The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says it has discovered a "forever chemical" in fish taken from Alexandria's Lake Winona, marking the first time the pollutant has been found in Greater Minnesota lakes. A fish consumption advisory has been issued for the lake.

On Monday, Nov. 8, the agency said the chemical, perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, had previously been found in the Twin Cities area near 3M plants. PFOS comes from industrial processes and consumer products, and can accumulate to concerning levels in fish. It is transferred to humans who eat the fish, potentially harming their health, the agency said.

Depending on how much people are exposed to the chemical, they could experience decreased fertility; developmental delays in children; increased risk of prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers; and weakened immune systems, among other effects, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Minnesota is now recommending that its residents eat no more than one meal per week of sunfish taken from Lake Winona.

The discovery of PFOS in Lake Winona and 14 other water bodies, including two lakes in St. Louis County and the St. Croix River in eastern Minnesota, brings the total of Minnesota lakes or rivers known to be impaired by PFOS to 26.

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They are called "forever chemicals" because they don't break down in the environment. The agency said that as it expands its PFOS monitoring, it expects to find new contamination in waters throughout the state.

"It wasn't entirely surprising," said Alex Letvin, Glenwood area fisheries supervisor, about the discovery of PFOS. "There was concern among people in our office here. Lake Winona is an impaired water body and the sanitary district does discharge into the lake and we had concerns that there may be more going on than we realized."

The PFOS contamination in Lake Winona may be traced back to local fires that were controlled with fire-fighting foam, Letvin said. There have been several large fires locally, including the 2011 Sun-Opta fire and the 2020 downtown Alexandria fire, when firefighters had to spray more than 100 gallons of foam because of chemicals on the property.

"That's one of the known components that can leach PFOS into a water system," he said. Lake Winona is mere blocks from each location. "Firefighting foam in particular is pretty harmful to the environment. It doesn't break down."

Letvin said Lake Winona could also be receiving PFOS in other ways. The EPA says the chemical is used to make grease-resistant paper like fast food wrappers and pizza boxes, not to mention stain-repellent carpets, non-stick cookware, and even some kinds of dental floss.

During a press conference Monday, officials said they are trying to learn more about the sources of PFOS and have gotten state money that they expect will help people reduce their use of products containing PFOS.

Letvin said his office collected fish samples from Winona in June and sent them for testing, and didn't know until a reporter called that they had tested positive for PFOS. He said a logical next step would be to test fish in the downstream lakes, Henry and Agnes.

PFOS in Lake Agnes isn't the only new contaminant found in Douglas County. The Pollution Control Agency said that the Long Prairie River from Spruce Creek to Eagle Creek in Douglas and Todd counties violates the state's wild rice standard.

The river joins 34 other Minnesota lakes and rivers capable of producing wild rice that are impaired for sulfate. Sulfate can prevent wild rice from growing well.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is including both Lake Winona and the Long Prairie River on its most recent list of impaired waters that it updates every two years and sends to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as required by the federal Clean Water Act. The federal government then decides whether to approve the list.

Those aren't the only Douglas County lakes, streams or rivers to be added to the new list. Researchers also found e.coli in County Ditch 60, nutrients in Venus Lake in the western part of the county, and impairments in other ditches, creeks and lakes. In all, there are 12 additions to the list from Douglas County alone.

The agency did offer some good news, in that it is seeking to remove 31 water bodies from the list of polluted waters. That's because local groups teamed up to improve the water quality in their areas through expanding buffer strips, restoring prairies and reducing sediment flowing into the water body.

Any member of the public can view their latest proposed list and tell the state whether they believe other water bodies should be added to the list or removed, and why. To view the list, click here. Written comments can be sent to the agency through 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 7. Mail them to Miranda Nichols, 520 Lafayette Road N, St. Paul, MN 55155-4194, or email them to miranda.nichols@state.mn.us.