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Como residents worried about TCE health risks

After a study, some still have questions about the toxic vapor.

While a report showed cancer rates are normal in the Southeast Como neighborhood, residents are concerned about other health risks from the trichloroethylene, or TCE, soil vapors contaminating the area.

The Minnesota Department of Health released a report last month, which compared the number of cancer cases observed from 2001 to 2010 against those expected for residents from the 55414 ZIP code.

General Mills dumped TCE vapors on its former Hennepin Avenue property for 15 years in the mid-1900s as a byproduct of its chemical research. Since concerns over the vapors surfaced in the fall, engineers have tested more than 140 homes. More than 90 reported high levels of TCE, requiring mitigation systems that General Mills is paying for.

Ward 2 City Councilman Cam Gordon, who represents Southeast Como, said he isn’t satisfied yet.

“The problem is that it doesn’t necessarily convince me [and others] that it doesn’t mean [that] there might be a different incidence in the area that’s really close to the vapor or contaminated soils,” he said.

The report didn’t fully take into account the transient nature of the neighborhood, Gordon said. Students moving in and out of the area within that time period weren’t accounted for in the report. He also cited concern with the large ZIP code used, which included neighborhoods like Marcy Holmes and Prospect Park, that the vapors didn’t directly affect.

Will Hanson, a University of Minnesota chemical engineering junior who lives in Southeast Como, also said he wanted to see student cancer rates.

“It’s been this way for years,” he said. “So it seems like it would be hard to track them down and detect cancer rates as they get older.”

Engineers tested Hanson’s house for vapors twice in the early stages of the investigation. The first test found the house in the medium range, and the second found them in the low range, meaning they wouldn’t need a mitigation system to control contamination.

“I still am on the fence about [whether the home is in the clear],” he said. “I wish they would do more testing just to be sure.”

The report cited the neighborhood’s transient residents and variable cancer rates in small populations as limitations in the study and stated that they “limit the conclusions that can be drawn from the report.” The report also noted that the results don’t specifically address the potential health risks from environmental contaminants such as TCE vapors.

Katie Fournier, chair of the Livability Committee for the Southeast Como Improvement Association —  who had a system put in — said she’s reassured by the way General Mills has handled the situation.

“We’ve lived here a long time, and although there are some uncertainties in the work they’ve been doing, it gives us quite a feeling of security that things will probably not affect us,” she said.

But Gordon said many residents have come to him with concerns about health risks other than cancer, which could be difficult to quantify.

“It’s probably not the kind of information the state has at its fingertips,” he said. “… But I think it would be helpful to get more information about other things besides cancer.”

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