Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of more than 5,000 man-made chemicals that do not break down over time. Their extreme resistance to degradation in the environment and resistance to destruction in wastewater treatment plants, landfills, and incinerators has led to the nickname “forever chemicals.”
Many PFAS are known to be health hazards to humans. Several specific PFAS have been linked to increased risks for cancer, liver disease, immune system disfunction, and other negative health impacts. PFAS can also negatively impact aquatic life and wildlife.
Since the 1940s, PFAS have been used in many commercial and industrial applications including metal plating, carpeting, waterproof clothing, upholstery, food paper wrappings, cookware, cosmetics, fire-fighting foam, and much more. PFAS continue to be manufactured and used in industrial and commercial products today.
PFAS have been found in the blood serum of nearly every American. Recent studies show because PFAS can transfer from a mother to her baby, nearly all babies are born with these chemicals in their body. This widespread exposure to PFAS in our communities is the result of decades of releases of PFAS into the environment and use of PFAS in commercial and industrial products.
PFAS contamination has been caused by:
- Releases to the air, which results in soil, surface water, and groundwater contamination
- Releases to surface water, which results in surface water, fish, sediment and potentially groundwater contamination
- Releases to soil, including during use of PFAS-containing fire-fighting foam, which results in soil, surface water, groundwater, and fish contamination
There are many known regions of significant PFAS contamination in Minnesota. The first site of PFAS contamination discovered in Minnesota was in the eastern suburbs of the Twin Cities. In this region, the 3M company illegally disposed of PFAS-containing waste in a manner that contaminated 150 square miles of drinking water, surface water, and soil. In the early 2000s, this led to more than 170,000 people in 14 communities requiring emergency treatment of drinking water or alternative sources of safe drinking water. Additionally, this contamination led to significant levels of PFAS building up in fish tissue in the region, and the Minnesota Department of Health continues to recommend that people not consume fish from several waterbodies in the region. In 2010, the State of Minnesota sued 3M, which eventually resulted in a $850 million settlement to help offset the costs of providing clean drinking water and recovering damaged natural resources in the East Metro suburbs.
In addition to PFAS manufacturing, there are many other industries that use or make PFAS-containing products. These uses can also result in significant releases of PFAS into the environment, and subsequent build-up of those PFAS in our bodies. For example, Class B firefighting foam, designed to extinguish fires of flammable liquids like fuel or solvents, contains PFAS. PFAS are consistently detected near locations where firefighting training occurs, including at many airports, Department of Defense facilities, and refineries.
Human health and environmental concerns
Assessing risks from PFAS exposure
The Minnesota Department of Health has conducted toxicity assessments for a number of PFAS. These assessments determine the negative health effects that could be caused from exposure to each PFAS and at what levels of exposure is health affected. MDH uses those toxicity assessments to calculate guidance values for drinking water and to develop guidance values and regulatory values for PFAS in surface water, fish, and soil. Health risk information and the MPCA's risk assessment information for soil and sediment contamination and water quality criteria are used in work to prevent and remediate PFAS contamination.
Monitoring, reporting, and regulations
The MPCA's PFAS monitoring plan lays out a path forward for PFAS monitoring at solid waste, wastewater, and stormwater facilities, hazardous waste landfills, facilities with air emissions, and sites in the Brownfield or Superfund programs.
Monitoring PFAS in fish and water
PFAS testing began in Minnesota’s lakes and streams in 2004, which has led to fish-consumption advisories due to perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) levels in fish tissue. PFOS is just one of the almost 5,000 PFAS chemicals. Continued monitoring is needed; many Minnesota lakes and streams that are potentially contaminated by PFAS have not been tested.
The Minnesota impaired waters list now includes 26 bodies of water that are impaired due to levels of PFOS. Following the Minnesota Department of Health's guidelines can help you lower exposure to PFOS and other contaminants when eating fish caught in Minnesota.
The EPA now regulates some uses of PFAS and some manufacturers have eliminated them, but PFAS continue to be manufactured in the US and globally. PFAS are still widely used in commercial and industrial products.
Minnesota now requires that any use of class B firefighting foam containing PFAS be reported to the state. Use of PFAS-containing foam for testing and training is generally prohibited.