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We're addicted to PFAS. Can we adapt to live without?

Brooks Johnson, Chloe Johnson, Star Tribune on

Published in Lifestyles

MINNEAPOLIS — Over the past two years, 3M sold nearly 25,000 different products that contain PFAS, the "forever chemicals" that will soon be largely illegal in Minnesota.

While the company has reformulated nearly one-third of those products — mostly sandpaper and tape that didn't use much to begin with — 3M expects to lose out on more than $1 billion in annual sales as it phases out PFAS production by the end of next year.

Even as regulations and litigation drive PFAS toward extinction, there are no replacements for all its uses. Companies are sprinting to find suitable substitutions in thousands of consumer products, including dental floss and raincoats, that rely on the highly functional chemicals.

"Safe, economically-feasible alternatives are not there; they're not readily available," said Allison Lange Garrison, a product liability and complex litigation attorney at Nilan Johnson Lewis. "So to say PFAS could simply be swapped out — that's a really tall order."

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a family of chemicals pioneered by 3M that have shaped modern life over the past 70 years. Consumer products rely on PFAS to make items waterproof, stain-resistant, flame-retardant, non-stick, lubricated and heat-transferring. PFAS is used to help mold plastics, etch semiconductor chips and smother dangerous fuel fires.

Those advances, while functional and convenient, have come at a great cost to the environment and human health. The properties that make PFAS chemicals so useful — nearly unbreakable molecular bonds — cause them to linger in the environment indefinitely, and in human blood streams for years. A growing body of scientific research has linked the chemicals with some cancers, developmental problems and reduced immune response.

 

"We lived for thousands of years without this stuff. Do we need it?" said Susan Richardson, a University of South Carolina scientist who has studied PFAS for decades. "Maybe new products won't be quite as great as products with PFAS. But I've got faith in the smart chemists out there that they'll come up with something that's not harmful to people and the environment."

The clock is ticking, as Minnesota next year will ban intentionally added PFAS in 11 product categories, including carpeting, cosmetics, cleaning products and cookware. That's in addition to a ban on PFAS in food containers that went into effect last month. By 2032, nearly all PFAS uses will be outlawed in the state. There are some exceptions, especially in medical devices, where PFAS will be allowed indefinitely.

Minnesota's PFAS policy is called Amara's Law, after Amara Strande, one of many east metro residents who for years unknowingly drank water contaminated with PFAS chemicals that were dumped near a 3M plant.

Strande died from a rare form of liver cancer last year, and spent her final months advocating for the ban.

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