More than 140 lakes, rivers and streams in Minnesota had fish contaminated with forever chemicals

At least 148 lakes, rivers and streams in Minnesota were found to have had fish contaminated with so-called forever chemicals, according to state testing data obtained by the FOX 9 Investigators.  

From its lakes to its winding rivers, Minnesota has conducted limited testing of fish for PFAS, also known as forever chemicals. 

PFAS is a class of man-made chemicals that do not break down over time. For years, manufacturers used forever chemicals in household items like non-stick cookware and water-resistant clothing. The compounds have also been tied to serious health issues, including cancer. 

Contaminated fish on the Mississippi

For years, state officials have conducted tests to monitor contaminations in fish to not only better protect the public but to track down possible polluters.  

Angler Mike Jaques fishes the Mississippi River often. He is a self-described "river rat" but is limited to a game of catch and release. 

"It’s been a couple, few years since I’ve eaten fish out of the river," Jaques said. 

A state advisory was issued this year, warning certain people to not eat any fish due to harmful levels of contaminants, including forever chemicals. The warnings about fish contaminations stretch from the Ford Dam in St. Paul to Hastings in an area known as Pool 2. Nearby Lake Rebecca is also included in the fish consumption advisories. 

Testing fish for forever chemicals

Across Minnesota, collecting fish for testing is a laborsome process. For years, the state has conducted some testing of fish for PFAS chemicals, which has revealed more about the landscape of contaminations across the state.   

"Those fish are really kind of the canary in the coal mine, so to speak," said Summer Streets, a research scientist with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. 

"If we just sample water, a lot of times we will get non-detects and so we may not know if there is an issue with PFAS in the fish," Streets said. "But because the fish accumulate PFAS to a greater degree, we get a better idea of the actual condition of the water body, and then we can make decisions about potential human health impacts, or we can use the data to understand if there’s a source here and how we can address that source." 

In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, only a fraction of Minnesota’s lakes and waterways have undergone fish testing for forever chemicals.

MAP: Blue markers represent bodies of water where fish tested were found to have at least one PFAS chemical. Red markers represent bodies of water where MDH has issued a fish consumption advisory based on contaminations, including forever chemicals. (As of Nov. 11, 2023). 

A FOX 9 Investigators analysis of years of testing data reveals at least 148 lakes, rivers and streams had fish contaminated with at least some level of PFAS chemicals detected. 

"I think people should be aware of the issues, and they should make the best decision they can for themselves and their families on where they want to fish," Streets said. 

Comparatively, the Minnesota Department of Health has issued far fewer fish consumption advisories. According to MDH, at least 48 bodies of water have had site-specific fish consumption advisories issued due in part to forever chemicals detected. 

"I don’t think that that is a cause for panic," said Sarah Fossen Johnson, who supervises MDH’s environmental surveillance and assessment section. "They just need to go to our website and look at those safe-eating guidelines to know which fish, how often, and whether they personally might be at higher risk for it."  

However, MDH’s statewide guidance on what fish is safe to eat and what is not has not been updated in nearly three years due to the pandemic. 

"Just like every other business, MDH has been trying to come back into operation after dealing with the pandemic, but we’re working on that update," Fossen Johnson said. "We’ve been doing our best at the state to assess the situation and understand the impact that PFAS has had on our environment."

Tracking the contaminations

In some cases, the testing of fish can reveal a lot more than the testing of surface water itself. In Duluth, such testing led to the discovery of several previously unknown contaminations. 

"We discovered highly contaminated fish in Sergeant Creek," Streets said. 

A state investigation found the contamination came from firefighting foam used at a nearby training site operated by Lake Superior College. A clean-up plan is now in the works. 

Testing on the Mississippi River

Meanwhile, an investigation is still underway in the Twin Cities area to identify the source of the PFAS contamination in the stretch of the Mississippi River where fish consumption advisories were issued. A suspected source of the contamination has not been made public. 

"There’s sort of two points of concern about what we’re seeing in the fish there and one is that the levels of some PFAS were quite high in fish," Streets said. "And then also there’s a greater variety of different PFAS compounds that we typically don’t see in other water bodies." 

The discovery of the PFAS contaminations in fish in the Mississippi was made during a third-party study conducted for manufacturer 3M, which uses PFAS chemicals.

A 3M spokesperson told the FOX 9 Investigators the company is on track to invest $250 million at its Cottage Grove facility to implement a treatment system for PFAS by the year 2025. 

"Our initial investments and process changes have already resulted in significant reduction of PFAS discharges from the Cottage Grove site," the 3M spokesperson said. 

More fish testing on the horizon

From the North Shore to the city lakes, more testing for PFAS in fish is on the horizon. In past years, Minnesota used to send fish to Canada for PFAS testing, but the process often encountered logistical issues.  

The state is now moving toward performing its own in-house testing of fish samples.

With new funding approved by the Legislature, state agencies are expected to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to expand its PFAS in fish testing efforts to include as many as 30 new lakes every year. 

"We want to ensure that not only are we protecting the resource for human use, but that we’re protecting it for the sake of the fish and the animals that eat the fish and all of the other critters that are out there," Streets said.