Amara Strande’s father helps her to a seat after she talked about her experience living with a rare type of cancer called fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma. “I’m going to die from this cancer,” Strande said at a Capitol press conference on Tuesday, Jan. 24. Photo by Michelle Griffith/Minnesota Reformer
Amara Strande arrived at the Minnesota Capitol in a wheelchair, having come straight from a doctor appointment Tuesday.
The 20-year-old Woodbury woman is dying, with no options left to treat the rare liver cancer she was diagnosed with at age 15 while a student at Tartan High School in Oakdale.
Although she’s in what she called “excruciating pain,” Strande got out of the wheelchair and walked into a press room to explain why she supports lawmakers who announced legislation aimed at a group of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that have been made by Maplewood-based 3M since the 1950s.
Strande, her east metro neighbors and many scientists believe the chemicals have caused an unusual number of rare cancers and other explained illnesses.
Internal documents show the company failed for decades to report to regulators and scientists that they could be toxic to humans, animals and the environment.
Sen. Tou Xiong also went to Tartan High School, as did his four brothers, including one who’s the same age as Strande. He joined Strande, her family and other lawmakers to support several bills.
One would ban PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam (a 2019 bill banned its use during training; this bill would ban its use in all cases except as allowed by federal law). Another would require manufacturers selling products with PFAS in Minnesota to disclose that to the state. A third would ban all non-essential use of PFAS chemicals.
Gov. Tim Walz has also proposed spending over $4 million on PFAS source reduction over the biennium.
Xiong may also introduce a bill patterned after a first-of-its-kind Vermont law that allows people exposed to toxic chemicals to sue responsible companies for the cost of monitoring their health.
When he was a high school student, Xiong said he wondered why the school rallied around cancer fundraisers like the Relay for Life (for which THS is one of the top fundraisers in the nation).
“I soon came to understand that many of my classmates — they had friends, childhood friends from preschool and kindergarten that… had cancer,” he said.
They lived within a 100-square-mile area east of St. Paul contaminated by an underground plume that continues to spread outward with chemicals 3M dumped for years into landfills in the area. The plume is now about 200 square miles.
“Little has been done to clean up or hold those deemed responsible for the deadly cause and effect that has robbed my community,” Strande said. “We have all paid a high price due to large corporations carelessly dumping known toxic chemicals… . Corporations must stop the production of these toxins and be held accountable and pay for the damage they’ve done.”
Days after Strande was featured in a December Reformer series about 3M’s history of covering up the dangers of its chemicals, the company announced plans to stop making PFAS and stop using the chemicals in its products by the end of 2025. Other companies still make the chemicals.
3M said in a statement that the company supports PFAS regulation “based on the best available science and established regulatory processes.” The regulations, the company added, should be “crafted carefully to meet regulatory objectives and help maintain the availability of important products that are made with PFAS.”
Rep. Athena Hollins, DFL-St. Paul, said she breastfed her two children for a year, and was “crushed” when she learned the chemicals are in breastmilk.
“Like most people, I trusted our government to protect consumers and ensure their safety. I didn’t think I needed to research what kind of nonstick pan I was going to be using or where I should or shouldn’t eat when I needed to grab a fast meal,” she said. “But our government has failed us. We’ve allowed large companies to dictate what is available and allowable in our water, our air and our food.”
That’s why she is chief author of a bill that would require companies to disclose to the state if their products contain the chemicals.
Sen. Kelly Morrison, DFL-Deephaven, is co-author of a bill that would ban use of the chemicals in manufacturing non-essential items.
“Just imagine your toddler or grandchild playing on a PFAS-infused carpet with toys coated in PFAS while eating food that was cooked on a PFAS-coated pan and you start to get a picture of how unnecessarily ubiquitous these chemicals are in our lives,” said Morrison, a physician. “We have to stop this as soon as possible.”
Rep. Matt Norris, DFL-Blaine, introduced a bill, HF742, that would ban the chemicals in firefighting foam (currently they’re banned only for firefighter training). Norris happens to go to the church where Strande’s father works, but didn’t know about what the family was going through until he saw them at the Capitol Tuesday.
Strande’s father, Michael, said their insurance has paid out millions of dollars for his daughter’s treatment, and without the support of their community, they would have been overwhelmed with “hidden costs.”
The first bill they got after Strande fell into a month-long coma after surgery to remove a 15-pound tumor embedded in her liver was $900,000 for the intensive care unit alone.
“My hope and prayer is that we live in a world where young teenage girls do not need a CaringBridge page or a GoFundMe site to help with the high cost of cancer,” he said. “The legislation that is being proposed today is a good beginning, but we must remember it is only the beginning.”
Surgery is the only proven treatment, and Strande has had more than 20 surgeries. She learned last year that four tumors removed in December 2021 in New York City had returned “worse than ever,” she said. In recent months, tumors grew next to her heart, wrapping around her upper right chest, fracturing her ribs. She has lost the use of her right arm.
“2022 was the year my cancer became unstoppable,” she said. “They can’t do surgery this time. There are no more treatments to try.”
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