News release: Lead health threats prompt MDH and DLI to ask court to halt Water Gremlin operations

News Release
October 28, 2019

Contact information

Lead health threats prompt MDH and DLI to ask court to halt Water Gremlin operations

Children of Water Gremlin employees had elevated blood lead levels linked to lead dust brought home by workers unknowingly; DLI on-site investigation found conditions and practices at the plant presented substantial risk of physical harm

Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Commissioner Jan Malcolm and Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) Commissioner Nancy Leppink today took action to cease operations related to the industrial production of lead products at Water Gremlin, a company in White Bear Township that has caused lead poisoning in children.

DLI today issued a temporary order that requires Water Gremlin to cease operations related to industrial production of lead products at its White Bear Township plant following an on-site inspection on Saturday, Oct. 26. The Commissioners also today asked a Ramsey County District Court judge to issue an injunction extending this order until the court is satisfied that necessary steps have been taken and maintained to prevent the lead poisoning of workers’ children.

The agencies made a joint court filing after determining that efforts by Water Gremlin to control worker exposure to lead dust and worker lead dust contamination in the plant have not been successful. The court action seeks to extend a temporary order issued today by DLI that requires Water Gremlin to cease operations related to industrial production of lead products at its White Bear Township plant following an on-site inspection on Saturday, Oct. 26.

St. Paul - Ramsey County Public Health investigators determined that at least 12 children of workers at Water Gremlin had elevated blood lead levels, including two children with blood lead levels above the level of 15 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL). Blood lead levels above this threshold are considered by health officials to constitute a particularly serious health risk for children.

While elevated blood lead levels in children are typically associated with in-home exposures to lead-based paint, investigators in these cases determined that the children’s elevated blood lead levels were linked to a separate issue called “take-home lead.” In the absence of appropriate industrial hygiene practices, lead dust can accumulate on workers’ bodies, clothing, shoes and personal items, and may be brought home unknowingly. Because lead dust is heavy, it can accumulate in homes and vehicles and is not easily removed. Family members living with the workers who bring lead dust home can ingest the lead dust, which can accumulate in their bodies.

St. Paul - Ramsey County Public Health had been working with Water Gremlin management to address the issue of take-home lead, but confirmation of a second child with a blood lead level above 15 mcg/dL this month indicated that the company’s efforts were insufficient. As a result, St. Paul - Ramsey County Public Health asked MDH and DLI for assistance. 

“Confirmation of a second case of childhood lead poisoning made it clear that practices at the plant were not sufficient to reduce the risk,” Commissioner Malcolm said. “Lead is a serious health concern, especially for children. We needed to act quickly to protect the workers and their families.”

Commissioner Leppink earlier today issued a temporary order requiring Water Gremlin to cease operations related to industrial production of lead products at its White Bear Township plant following an on-site inspection on Saturday, Oct. 26.

The inspection found conditions and practices related to worker lead exposure and contamination that were cause for concern for the health of Water Gremlin workers and their families. Leppink’s authority to order Water Gremlin to cease operations at its plant expires after 72 hours, so she asked the court to extend the temporary order to allow time for the agency to ensure that Water Gremlin implements and sustains adequate remediation actions.

As health commissioner, Malcolm has independent statutory authority to ask the court to enjoin activities that are adverse to public health and asked the court to continue the shutdown ‑ again so that steps can be taken to protect workers and families’ health.

MDH and St. Paul - Ramsey County Public Health are working with the employees and their families to ensure all at-risk workers and family members are tested, and that contaminated houses and vehicles are cleaned.

In addition, the agencies are working with Ramsey County and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to help workers during the disruption in facility operations. Those efforts include providing employees with information on what is happening with the plant, where to get help with employment as needed, and where to get more information about lead and health impacts.

Resources for Workers

  • St. Paul - Ramsey County Public Health, DEED and MDH have staff at Vadnais Heights Sports Center (1490 County Rd E East, Vadnais Heights) today to provide education and risk communication. St. Paul - Ramsey County Public Health and MDH will work to arrange lead testing events for workers and their families.

  • DEED’s State Rapid Response Team (SRRT) will also be on site at Vadnais Heights Sports Center to support Water Gremlin employees through the Dislocated Worker Program. The Dislocated Worker Program provides career planning, job search assistance, support services, and training to eligible workers at no cost, so they can get back to work as quickly as possible. Services are tailored to address individual participant needs and goals, and employees can access program resources up to 180 days prior to a layoff date.

  • DEED is partnering with MDH, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), St. Paul - Ramsey County Public Health, and Ramsey County Workforce Solutions to provide information to Water Gremlin employees on resources available through the Dislocated Worker and Unemployment Insurance programs from noon-4 p.m. today at the Vadnais Heights Sports Center. Additional meetings will be made public over the coming days. Workforce and public health information is also available on Ramsey County’s Water Gremlin webpage.

  • Any Water Gremlin employees seeking immediate job search assistance can also go to their local CareerForce location for help with resume writing, interviewing skills, and job search assistance. The Rapid Response Team is also available to support community strategies and share best practices from other communities.

-MDH-


Media inquiries:

Doug Schultz
MDH Communications
612-250-2236

Doug.Schultz@state.mn.us

James Honerman
Department of Labor and Industry
651-284-5313
James.Honerman@state.mn.us