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50 years on: General Mills caught up in toxic solvent investigation

By Kacey Culliney+

15-Nov-2013
Last updated the 15-Nov-2013 at 12:20 GMT

Minnesota authorities have launched a new investigation into TCE contamination from an old General Mills site - soil vapor testing will commence across 200 homes next week
Minnesota authorities have launched a new investigation into TCE contamination from an old General Mills site - soil vapor testing will commence across 200 homes next week

Cereal giant General Mills is still working to undo the impact of poor waste disposal over 50 years ago at an old R&D center in Minneapolis as a new investigation is launched.

Between 1940-1960 General Mills disposed of its cleaning solvents – trichloroethylene (TCE) – “in a manner customary for the times”, it said, via soil absorption pits on site.

Over half a century later, and after around 30 years of groundwater treatment efforts from General Mills, a new investigation has been opened by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) over concerns that solvent vapors may pose a health risk to residents.

Long-term exposure to TCE has been associated with liver, kidney and blood cancers but health officials are more concerned about the short-term effects of vapor inhalation such as immune system weakness.

Vapor analysis and soil testing to start next week

On November 7, the two state agencies announced plans to start widespread soil testing and vapor analysis on the site and surrounding areas. Officials will investigate up to 200 homes in the area, starting next week.

Some vapor testing has already been conducted by the authorities. Findings show TCE levels 10 times the ‘intrusion screening values’ (ISV) recommended by the MPCA and in some places levels exceeded 100 times the ISV. These findings prompted the decision to investigate homes in the area, as these levels exceed health limits for indoor air.

Contaminated vapors can move through the soil and into homes

Contaminated vapors can move through the soil and into homes

Speaking to BakeryandSnacks.com, General Mills spokesperson Kirstie Foster said the company is “fully committed to resolving this vapor issue” and would do so by involvement in the investigation.

“General Mills is funding the cost of testing – and mitigation where necessary,” she said.

Asked if this 50-year-long issue had proved costly for the company, Foster said: “We don’t have an estimate, but our involvement with this site is well known. It is disclosed in our 10K [annual report], and has been for decades.” 

General Mills will pay to install vapor ventilation systems in any houses found to have TCE levels above the safe level set by the MPCA. “Such systems are a proven solution to radon and vapor intrusion problems,” the cereal company said.

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