House panel considers 3 bills that would strictly regulate ‘forever chemicals’

By: - January 31, 2023 8:52 pm

Amara Strande testifies before the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee Jan. 31 in support of a bill that would prohibit PFAS in children’s products. Copyright Minnesota House of Representatives. Photo by Andrew VonBank

A House panel took up three bills Tuesday that would more strictly regulate a group of chemicals that have been made by Maplewood-based 3M since the 1950s. 

In late December, 3M announced plans to stop making per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and stop using the chemicals in its products by the end of 2025. Other companies still make the chemicals.

Studies have shown the chemicals accumulate in the environment and the human body and are toxic. 

One bill would ban the chemicals in firefighting foam. Another would require manufacturers that sell products with PFAS in Minnesota to disclose that to the state. A third would ban the chemicals in children’s products. 

Firefighting foam

Rep. Matt Norris, DFL-Blaine, said his bill, HF742, would toughen a 2019 law banning the chemicals in firefighting foam used for training and testing. His bill would ban the chemicals in foam altogether, except as allowed by federal law. 

Firefighting foam has been the source of some of the most serious soil, surface water and groundwater contamination in the world, and has been linked to bladder, kidney, testicular and prostate cancer, according to the Sierra Club.

Although there are alternatives that don’t have the chemicals, the federal government requires PFAS foam in certain situations, Norris said.

The committee passed an amendment that would exempt oil refineries until the end of 2025, and if they have no alternative foam by then, they can apply to the state for a waiver. 

Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj said firefighters are now advised to treat the foam as a hazardous material. Firefighters are also exposed to the chemicals in their personal protective equipment, or “turnout gear,” which they’re being advised to wear as little as possible.

“Is that really an answer for firefighters?” Krizaj said.

Norris said turnout gear may be addressed in his bill, or another bill. 

Scott Vadnais, an Edina firefighter and president of the Minnesota Professional Firefighters Association, said a 5-gallon container of firefighting foam has enough chemicals to contaminate four olympic-sized swimming pools.

Chad Larimer, a former U.S. Air Force firefighter, said he was stationed in one of the most polluted sites in the U.S., and has had cancer and autoimmune diseases that caused Type 1 diabetes. 

But the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce urged caution, saying alternatives have not yet been approved by the U.S. Department of Defense or Federal Aviation Administration. Tony Kwilas, director of environmental policy for the chamber, said firefighters need to be able to fight fires until an alternative is certified.

Norris said in most cases, there are viable alternatives, except for refineries.

Mitch Kilian, vice president of governmental affairs for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, said airports have been required to use the foam for a long time, and the U.S. Defense Department is close to coming up with new specifications on this “highly scientific matter.”

“We all want to get rid of this stuff,” he said. Foam with PFAS been used by metro airports twice in the past three years, for a propane fire and when a catering truck caught fire, he said.

It’s not clear how airports will dispose of the PFAS-laced foam once an alternative is prescribed — Kilian said there’s talk of having to “melt down” the pipes, an assertion that prompted committee chair Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, to nod his head in agreement.

Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, said the issue is dear to him, because his father was a firefighter who sometimes used foam.

“We’re all passionate about this issue,” he said. “Both sides of the table care about this issue.” 

The bill could wind up in a larger environment and natural resources package. 

Children’s products

Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn, DFL-Eden Prairie, is author of HF552, which would ban the manufacture, distribution and sale of products containing PFAS for children under age 12, beginning in 2025. 

The ban would apply to products such as bassinets, foam pillows, infant carriers, playpens and crib/toddler mattresses. Used products and phones, computers, medical devices and adult mattresses would be exempt.

The bill was supported by Amara Strande, a 20-year-old Woodbury woman who is dying of a rare liver cancer she was diagnosed with at age 15 while a student at Tartan High School in Oakdale — where she said many students got cancer. Oakdale started filtering its water in 2006 after it was found to be contaminated with PFAS that 3M dumped in the county for decades.

Her father, Michael, said they only discovered in the past few years that the chemicals are in everything from toys to cookware to shampoo to dental floss to eye makeup. Had he known they were in so many products, he would have been more diligent about what he brought into his home, he said. He assumed the government wouldn’t allow harmful chemicals in products.

Avonna Starck, state director of Clean Water Action, said the chemicals enter fetuses through umbilical cord blood, and they’ve been linked to behavioral problems, lower IQ, lower birth weight, Type 2 diabetes and childhood cancers.

Starck displayed her son’s toys containing the chemicals, saying the cheaper the toy, the more likely they are to have the chemicals.

Kwilas, the state chamber lobbyist, suggested the bill specify products in which the chemicals are “intentionally added” as opposed to those that have trace amounts due to, for example, water used to make them. 

The Minnesota Retailers Association urged lawmakers not to be an outlier among other states with its regulations.

The panel voted to send the bill to the commerce committee.

All products with PFAS

Rep. Athena Hollins, DFL-St. Paul, introduced HF372, which would require manufacturers of products that contain intentionally added PFAS to disclose that to the state Pollution Control Agency. 

Several states are considering similar bills this year.

Strande testified in support of the bill, saying it’s possible she was exposed to toxic chemicals and never had the chance to make educated purchases. Her father testified that companies have shown time and time again that they’ll only take action to protect consumers when forced to.

“For many, it’s based on what they can legally get away with,” he said.

Trade groups asked that the bill be amended to exempt medical devices, FDA-approved consumer health care products, animal health products, cars and home appliances. 

The committee voted Wednesday to send the bill to the commerce committee.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.