CORDOVA, Ill. — After a wave of cancer diagnoses in her neighborhood, a Cordova woman is questioning whether toxic chemicals from a nearby 3M plant could play a part in her community's health issues.
The Illinois attorney general is suing 3M, saying the company's Cordova facility knowingly manufactured and improperly disposed of a dangerous group of synthetic perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals for years.
Also known as PFAS, the substances are sometimes referred to as 'forever chemicals' since they're so difficult to remove from the environment and have been found to accumulate in both humans and animals over time.
Attorney General Kwame Raoul notes in the state's lawsuit against 3M that exposure to PFAS has been correlated to liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility and more. The National Cancer Institute also links PFAS to certain forms of cancer.
In response to the lawsuit, 3M released a statement saying: "3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS and will continue to vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship in this action."
But Dawn Baumgartner isn't so sure.
The lifelong Cordova resident has spent 71 years living along the banks of the Mississippi River. She loves the peace and quiet of the small town and knows many of her neighbors by name.
She also lives just over four miles downriver from 3M's Cordova facility.
"I had concerns over the years because along where I'm living, for about a mile and a half, there's been umpteen cancers," Baumgartner said.
Ticking names off on her fingers, she listed off neighbor after neighbor that had received a cancer diagnosis over the last two decades.
"One by one, oh they got cancer, oh they got cancer and it just keeps going," Baumgartner said, estimating that along one half-mile stretch of her rural neighborhood, at least eight or nine people were diagnosed.
"I know people get cancer but just this small stretch? To have that many cancers and different ones," Baumgartner questioned. "That's just kind of like... what?"
And then two years ago, she got her own diagnosis.
"Out of the blue. Just stage four... boom. Uterine cancer."
Even more puzzling to her, Baumgartner's family doesn't have a history of the disease. Instead, she suspects it came from something in the environment.
Like most of her neighbors, Baumgartner gets her water from a well outside of her home. The rural stretch of houses is too far away from town to enjoy access to municipal water pipes. It had never been a problem for Baumgartner, who says friends and family would rave about the clarity and taste of her well water.
But the state's lawsuit against 3M alleges that the company has been manufacturing and improperly discharging PFAS for years, writing that leaked chemicals were dumped into the Mississippi River, emitted into the air and spilled into surface, ground and drinking waters.
"3M's negligent, intentional, and reckless actions have contaminated property and natural resources... at and around the Cordova Facility, harmed property and natural resources... at and around the Cordova Facility, and placed Illinois residents at risk," the suit states.
June 2020 samples from a monitoring well within the plant's manufacturing area were found to have significantly higher levels of PFAS than what the Illinois EPA advises.
One specific type of "forever chemical" known as PFOS was detected at levels more than 5,700 times greater than the state's health advisory level.
The suit also states "3M has detected concentrations of (PFAS) at nearly every residential well sampled during every year that sampling has occurred."
"I was just like, 'Oh my God, that's not good,'" Baumgartner said.
She can't prove what caused her cancer, but Baumgartner says 3M should have disclosed the health risks of PFAS as soon as they knew.
"Shame on you for letting this continue knowingly that the levels are high. Knowingly that it causes cancers," she said. "For you to continue knowing this... shame on you guys. And it's time to stand up and face the piper."
Now Baumgartner says all she can do is look into filtration systems and continue to enjoy life for as long as she still can.