Keeping “forever chemicals” out of Minnesota waters

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By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This week, the US House Oversight Subcommittee on Environment held hearings on a growing health and safety issue in our waters and environments, especially in Minnesota: chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAs. These two types of chemicals are ubiquitous in many consumer products, including fabrics, stain- and water-resistant coatings, and some cosmetics, as well as in firefighting foams.

Three important characteristics make PFAs especially troubling for the environment and for our health. First, the nature of the products they are used in means they’re especially likely to end up – invisibly – in air, groundwater, and the food chain.  Second, they don’t break down naturally, giving rise to their moniker of “forever chemicals.” Third, reputable studies have indicated that PFAs contribute to cancers, diseases of the kidneys, immune systems, and reproductive organs, and various other harmful conditions to humans and animals.

For these reasons, and because PFAs have been detected in waters, animals, and communities around the United States, Congress and state authorities are calling for swift action to combat these hazards.

Minnesota is at the center of the contamination story because the adoption of PFAS in industry was spearheaded by 3M, the multinational company based in Maplewood. PFAS contamination in the Maplewood area due to 3M’s actions led to a lawsuit led by the Minnesota Attorney General’s office in which 3M settled with the state for $890 million, most of which will go to projects to improve the state’s groundwater.

Other parts of the state and region are not immune: various Great Lakes groups have identified PFAS as a direct threat to the watershed, including in the Duluth area, where the use of PFAS in firefighting chemicals has caused contamination in local waters.

Among the testifiers in the Congressional hearings this week were 3M representatives, who maintained that small amounts of PFAS are not dangerous in spite of the growing scientific evidence to the contrary. While this attempt to avoid responsibility sends an unfortunate message, it’s clear that it isn’t slowing a growing movement to reduce these PFAS with sound public policy, especially as safer alternative chemicals are researched.

However, Minnesota can’t wait for federal action (especially given recent gridlock) to fix our local PFAS problem. As of now, Minnesota’s only mechanisms to protect ourselves from PFAS are advisory limits (difficult to enforce) and legal efforts by the Attorney General against individual companies.

We urge concerned Minnesotans to contact state lawmakers and ask them to take strong, effective action on these forever chemicals when the new session begins in 2020. The health of countless future generations of Minnesotans depends on the work we do today.

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