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Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) may be hard to say and even harder to spell, but it's likely that most people reading this have traces of these manmade substances in their blood.

PFAS compounds are sometimes referred to as "forever chemicals," for good reason. They break down very slowly, making them highly useful in products such as non-stick cookware, firefighting foam and consumer goods offering water- and stain-repellence. But what's valuable for the industry makes these chemicals problematic once they make their way into the environment — water in particular.

Research suggests that PFAS exposure at some levels may be linked to harmful health effects, such as reduced fertility or increased risk of some types of cancer. That's why a recent move by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) toward setting strict guidance levels for PFAS levels in the nation's drinking water is necessary and proper.

Earlier this month, the EPA issued health advisories for four types of PFAS. While the advisories are not enforceable, the agency's move serves several worthy purposes:

  • It makes clear that the acceptable level of two key PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — in drinking water is close to zero. The EPA's new thresholds are significantly lower than the current Minnesota guidance for these two chemicals.
  • It sets out new thresholds in drinking water for two next-generation PFAS — PFBS and what are often referred to as GenX compounds.
  • The advisories serve as an essential step toward making these compounds subject to national drinking water regulations, which are enforceable. A proposal for legal PFAS limits could come later this year.

Minnesotans may be more familiar than most with concerns about the PFAS because 3M Co., a large employer, played a leading role in their development and use.

A 2010 lawsuit led by state Attorney General Lori Swanson "claimed that 3M knowingly contaminated the drinking water of 67,000 residents of east-metro communities." In a 2018 settlement, the company agreed to an $850 million payout to the state. The dollars will go toward remediation. The good news is that water can be treated for PFAS contamination.

But the EPA move underscores what has become increasingly clear: The contamination isn't limited to east-metro communities in Minnesota or other cities near major manufacturers that pioneered these chemicals.

An interactive U.S. map from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group is lit up with communities and military installations with known PFAS contamination. The use of products containing PFAS chemicals, such as firefighting foam, is a likely source. Other manufacturers may also use chemicals in the PFAS family, another potential source of contamination.

For example, "PFAS has contaminated city drinking water wells in Bemidji and leached into wells and lakes near the Air National Guard base at Duluth International Airport where firefighters trained with special fire suppressants," according to a 2021 Star Tribune report. In addition, PFAS chemicals have "popped up statewide in drainage from landfills, in lakes from Lake Superior to Bde Maka Ska."

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) merits praise for acknowledging this more comprehensive and grimmer PFAS reality. Its "PFAS Blueprint," developed with other state agencies, was released in early 2021. It's an ambitious, actionable plan not just to remedy contamination but to better detect its source.

"Source reduction is the cheapest and most effective way" to prevent PFAS pollution, noted Kirk Koudelka, the MPCA's assistant commissioner for land policy.

The EPA's new health advisories generated concern at the Minnesota Department of Health. In a June 15 Star Tribune story, health officials said the federal regulator is "on the right track" but that the revised limits are so low they stretch the ability of labs to test for them.

The EPA should work with agencies like MDH to address these concerns as it moves toward an enforceable standard. But the agency's momentum is admirable.