Far-reaching ban on ‘forever chemicals’ set to become Minnesota law

Hands wearing blue gloves holds a water sample in small plastic bottle.
Minnesota Department of Health student paraprofessional Carolyn Enright holds a water sample from a private well in West Lakeland Township, Minn.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2019

Minnesota lawmakers are poised to adopt tough new regulations on the use of PFAS, known as "forever chemicals,” that will be the most restrictive in the nation.

The legislation, expected to pass the full House and Senate soon as part of a larger environmental bill, includes a sweeping ban on the non-essential use of the chemicals. Gov. Tim Walz is expected to sign it.

Starting in 2025, Minnesota will prohibit the sale of many products with PFAS that's been intentionally added. The lengthy list includes carpeting, cookware, children's products, cosmetics, dental floss, menstruation products and ski wax. 

There’s also a requirement that manufacturers disclose if the products they sell in Minnesota contain PFAS.

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By 2032, no product with intentionally added PFAS could be sold in Minnesota unless state officials decide it's essential for the health, safety or the functioning of society, and there are no reasonable alternatives. 

“What this bill is saying is that if it's not essential, we don't need to use it,” said Avonna Starck, state director of Clean Water Action Minnesota, which advocated for the restrictions. “So this bill is really encouraging innovation and a process for coming up with clean, safe alternatives.”

Maine and California have similar PFAS laws, but California’s doesn’t cover pots and pans, and Maine’s takes longer to phase in than Minnesota’s.

Growing concern

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a large class of human-made chemicals originally developed in Minnesota by Maplewood-based 3M back in the 1940s.

They're in a variety of consumer products, ranging from nonstick cookware to stain-repellent clothing. They're extremely durable, and don't break down in the environment. PFAS have been found in water, soil, wildlife and humans around the globe.

Some PFAS have been linked to health effects, including some types of cancer, thyroid disease and low birth weight.

3M recently announced it plans to discontinue the manufacturing and use of PFAS in its products.

Concerns about the extent of PFAS contamination and their health effects have been growing over the last several years.

Tightening regulations on these chemicals was a priority for the Walz administration and DFL state lawmakers, and was one of the first bills introduced after the DFL gained control of both the House and Senate this year.

‘I will die with this cancer’

A young woman named Amara Strande was instrumental in bringing attention to the PFAS issue this year and getting the ban passed.

Amara grew up in the east Twin Cities suburb of Oakdale and went to Tartan High School, an area where the drinking water was contaminated by PFAS produced by 3M.

When she was 15, she was diagnosed with rare liver cancer. Amara testified at the state Capitol several times this year, urging state lawmakers to enact a ban on PFAS. 

“Through no fault of my own, I was exposed to these toxic chemicals. And as a result, I will die with this cancer,” she said in January. “My life has been forever changed by this disease and the physical and emotional toll it has taken on me and my loved ones is unimaginable.”

Amara died last month, just a few days before her 21st birthday.

Advocates and lawmakers credit Amara with giving a human face and voice to this issue and helping get the PFAS legislation across the finish line. It will be called “Amara's Law” in her honor.

A woman speaks at a podium.
Amara Strande, a cancer patient who grew up in Oakdale, Minn., gave testimony at a press conference at the Minnesota State Capitol.
Screengrab from Minnesota House of Representatives video

Strong opposition

Some powerful groups lobbied against the PFAS bills, including chemical companies and manufacturers of the affected products.

They said it would have far-reaching negative consequences on nearly every sector of the economy including clean energy, electronics, automobiles and agriculture.

Those industries may look to relocate or invest in other states or overseas, wrote Rudy Rudy Underwood, vice president of state affairs for the American Chemistry Council, a trade association for U.S. chemical companies, in an email to MPR News.

“It would also contribute to a scenario where U.S. manufacturers face varying restrictions and rules from state to state that could overlap, conflict with each other or run afoul of federal laws,” he wrote.

Chemical manufacturers also argued PFAS don't all have the same properties, and shouldn't be lumped together and all regulated the same way.

The Minnesota bill does carve out some limited exceptions for the use of PFAS, including medical devices and firefighting foam used at airports and oil refineries, until there are safe alternatives.

Eyes on Minnesota

Some advocates said they think it's fitting that Minnesota pass the toughest PFAS restrictions, because the PFAS problem originated in Minnesota with 3M-produced chemicals.

In 2017, 3M agreed to pay $850 million to settle a lawsuit with the state of Minnesota over PFAS contamination in the east Twin Cities metro that affected several communities’ drinking water.

Andrea Lovoll, legislative director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said she expects Minnesota’s bill to be a model for other states.

“Being the strongest in the nation, that's a good bar to set,” Lovoll said. “And if that's the model that people are looking at to implement in their own states, that makes a really big difference.”

Meanwhile, the federal government is also ramping up action on PFAS, including declaring them a hazardous substance under the Superfund law. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed drinking water standards for some PFAS that are much lower than in many states, including Minnesota. 

The costs of dealing with these chemicals are only expected to grow. One of the major challenges ahead is developing technology to clean up and destroy the PFAS already in the environment.

“We’re going to be dealing with this problem for a very long time,” Lovoll said. “But until we turn off the tap and stop putting it in our products at every stage of the production line, we can't even talk about effective mitigation, because we just keep putting it into our environment.”