‘Forever chemicals’ remain in Minnesota, but Pentagon says PFAS are crucial to national security

Forever chemicals remain in Minnesota, but Pentagon says PFAs are crucial to national security

'Forever chemicals' remain in Minnesota, but Pentagon says PFAs are crucial to national security

For several Minnesota families, the “forever chemicals” prevalent in the land and water of more than a dozen east metro communities have earned their title as a “four-letter word.”

PFAS – per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances – once made and dumped by 3M, prompted lawsuits as more research linked the synthetic chemicals to greater risks for serious illnesses, including rare cancers.

3M recently announced it will stop manufacturing PFAS by 2025, and a new Minnesota law bans all non-essential uses of the chemicals, but now the effort to expand reforms is being called a threat to national security.

‘Mission critical’

In a letter to Congress in August, the Department of Defense (DOD) outlined the many critical uses of PFAS in aircraft, missile systems, and a wide variety of other products. 

The report specifically cites 3M’s decision to phase out the production of PFAS as a particular concern. 

“Losing access to PFAS due to overly broad regulations or severe market contractions would greatly impact national security and DOD’s ability to fulfill its mission,” the report said. 

The same suggestion that recent reforms in Minnesota are “overly broad” is especially frustrating for 17-year-old Nora Strande of Woodbury.

“It’s not overly broad. It’s exactly as broad as it needs to be,” Strande said.

Legislation to ban the non-essential use of PFAS in thousands of products in Minnesota is now known as “Amara’s Law” – named after Nora’s sister who died of cancer this year, just days before lawmakers enacted the reforms she spent the final days of her life fighting for.  

Nora Strande says she was not surprised by the DOD’s opposition to expanding similar reforms nationwide but says it would have riled her sister.

“She’d be coming running up the stairs, and she’d go, ‘Did you guys see what the DOD said?'” Strande said. “She’d be angry because she worked the last months of her life working so hard to keep people safe from these chemicals.”

Compliance concerns

The Pentagon insists the very nature of PFAS is what makes them so valuable to the military – their chemical stability, heat resistance, and waterproof qualities “provide required performance… which enable military readiness and sustainment,” the letter said. 

A retired four-star Army general who now lives in the east metro says the DOD makes a compelling case.

“This is exactly what I would’ve expected the Department of Defense to do,” said Gen. Joe Votel (ret.). “They’re trying to indicate that, ‘Hey, a very aggressive policy of stamping this out in a shorter period of time could have a significant impact.'”

Votel also notes that the Pentagon still supports reducing the impact of PFAS over time.  

The DOD letter to Congress adds that “eliminating PFAS from non-essential uses is an important step toward addressing public concerns and protecting human health and the environment.”

While 3M says it is committed to “exit” all PFAS use and manufacturing, the company tells 5 INVESTIGATES it will “continue to seek to innovate new solutions for customers,” which includes the Department of Defense.

“Most hard problems like this can be resolved in a collaborative way,” Votel said. “They’re concerned about being in compliance and not introducing things into the environment that are hazardous to service members or to the general public.”

Others say the Pentagon’s letter does not do enough to acknowledge the health risks and, instead, calls PFAS a “non-specific term” for a broad range of chemicals “which does not inform whether a compound is harmful or not.”

Eliminating exposure

The argument over whether PFAS can be considered a single “class” of chemicals is a familiar one to Matt Simcik, a professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Minnesota.

“They’re struggling with a lot of the same things that everybody else is struggling with, and that’s defining what PFAS are,” Simcik said. “We’re pretty sure these things are not good for us, and eliminating exposure is what I’m motivated to do.”

In Simcik’s lab at the U of M, his team is researching how PFAS is absorbed by fish. This year, the Minnesota Department of Health issued new guidance encouraging certain people to avoid consuming fish from some parts of the east metro area of the Twin Cities.

Simcik also receives funding from the Department of Defense as it looks to clean up military sites across the country that have been contaminated by the testing of firefighting foam containing PFAS.

“Now they’re putting a lot of money into, ‘Can we make just as effective firefighting foam that’s not fluorinated?'” Simcik said. 

Nora Strande and her family are now on a new mission of their own: to expand the kind of reforms Amara fought for nationwide. 

In meetings with lawmakers in Washington, Strande and others emphasize that Minnesota’s new law only bans non-essential uses of PFAS.

“For the greater good of humanity, if we need these products we’ll still have them,” Strande said. “But it’s not for the greater good of humanity to have them in 14,000 different products.”

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