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Lawmakers rush to introduce bills cracking down on 3M chemicals so cancer victim can testify


Lawmakers rush to introduce bills cracking down on 3M chemicals so cancer victim can testify

Jan 23, 2023 | 7:00 am ET
By Deena Winter
Lawmakers rush to introduce bills cracking down on 3M chemicals so cancer victim can testify
Amara Strande was 15 when she learned a nearly 15-pound tumor was embedded in her liver, a rare type of cancer called fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma that strikes one in 5 million Americans ​​between the ages of 15 to 39. Now 20, she has since had more than 20 surgeries to battle the tumors that keep growing in her body. She says she's not sure if 3M is responsible, but says, "I wish they would just admit that they were dumping these horrible chemicals, admit that it was wrong and that they were doing it instead of hiding it.” Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer

Minnesota lawmakers plan to introduce several bills cracking down on certain chemicals, rushing to hold hearings so that a young Woodbury woman who is dying of cancer can testify.

Maplewood-based 3M has made a group of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) since the 1950s, but failed for decades to report to regulators and scientists that they could be toxic to humans, animals and the environment. The company announced in late December that it plans to stop making PFAS and stop using the chemicals in its products by the end of 2025. Other companies still make the chemicals, and will continue to do so. 

Amara Strande, 20, was featured in a December Reformer series about the dangers of the 3M chemicals and how the company sought to conceal it. Strande is a graduate of Oakdale’s Tartan High School, where she was among an alarming number of students and graduates who got cancer. 3M stopped making some of the chemicals in 2000, and Oakdale began filtering its contaminated water in 2006.

Several bills are in the works: One would ban PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam. 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.

Passing both chambers of the Legislature and winning a signature from Gov. Tim Walz won’t be easy, given the powerful influence of 3M, which employs 13,500 Minnesotans and has wide-ranging sway among both parties. 3M said in a statement that it continues to support PFAS regulation “based on the best available science and established regulatory processes” but the  regulations should be “crafted carefully to meet regulatory objectives and help maintain the availability of important products that are made with PFAS.”

Avonna Starck, state director of Clean Water Action, said the three bills have been drafted and are waiting on bill numbers, but hearings may be held before they get numbers so Strande can testify.

“Everyone I have talked to in the Legislature who has heard her story is motivated to get it moving,” Starck said.

Sen. Tou Xiong, a Maplewood attorney, went to Tartan High School from 2004 to 2008.

“I know exactly what Amara is talking about,” he said. “Cancer is definitely a thing that was around.”

He remembers when state health officials announced in 2005 that 3M chemicals were detected in five Oakdale city water wells.

“We were like ‘Oh there’s contamination coming from 3M,’” Xiong said. “We didn’t really know anything else… I don’t think the teachers wanted to alarm us either.”

He’s working to draft 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.

Vermont lawmakers pushed for the law after a now-shuttered Bennington plastics factory contaminated about 8,000 residents’ drinking water, leading to a $34 million class-action settlement, including a $6 million medical monitoring fund. 

Courts in about 16 states have recognized the right to seek medical monitoring through case law, but Vermont’s law marked the first time a state put that right in statute, leaving no question that victims could seek reimbursement of medical monitoring costs, according to Safer States, a national alliance of environmental health organizations. 

The Vermont law also allows the state to sue manufacturers “who knew or should have known that the material presented a threat of harm to human health or the natural environment” for cleanup costs, according to the Associated Press.

Xiong said he’s been working for years with Woodbury and 3M to address city water wells shutting down in connection with 3M’s $850 million settlement with the state over chemical contamination.

“I think everybody wants to make sure that our communities are safe and that we address the PFAS forcing our community to close our wells,” he said. “I think it’s just finding the right path.”

The chemicals persist in the environment and humans, and can be found in the blood of people across the world. They can be found in wildlife in the Arctic circle and drinking water, rivers and streams. 

Beginning in the 1950s, 3M dumped thousands of gallons of industrial waste containing the chemicals into four landfills east of the Twin Cities, where they migrated into four aquifers used for drinking water and ended up in groundwater.

By 2017, a 100-square-mile underground plume east of St. Paul was contaminated with the chemicals. Today, the plume is about 200 square miles, according to state regulators.

While numerous people in the East Metro have suspected they may have been sickened by the contaminated water, help has been elusive.

Robert Bilott sued DuPont over chemicals polluting West Virginia farmland near its Teflon plant and won a landmark 2004 settlement. 3M manufactured the chemical for DuPont beginning in the 1950s. 

Oakdale residents then recruited Bilott to help with a Minnesota lawsuit against 3M, but Minnesota law doesn’t allow medical monitoring claims to be pursued in class-action suits. So the Minnesota case could not lead to the kind of settlement reached in West Virginia, where thousands of people were monitored, and an independent panel of scientists later linked chemical exposure in drinking water to six diseases, including two types of cancer. 

Bilott said in an email, “Having the ability to seek medical monitoring in response to exposure to toxic substances has been a critically important tool for those exposed to PFAS across the country.”

He filed a class-action lawsuit in 2018 in federal court on behalf of people exposed to the chemicals made by 3M and other companies. He’s not seeking monetary damages but wants the companies to fund a scientific panel to determine how much harm the chemicals are causing. In April, a judge certified the class-action lawsuit to go forward for Ohioans, but the chemical companies appealed the consideration of adding other Americans to the case. 

Ban on all but essential use of PFAS

Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, is author of a bill banning all “non-essential use” of PFAS chemicals in products. They’re found in car seats, carpeting, cosmetics, ski wax, cookware, food packaging, fabrics and cleaners.

“It’s everywhere and it’s just insane,” Brand said.

Brand said research has shown the chemicals can be found in breast milk. 

“All I’m trying to do with my legislation is turn off the tap,” he said. “The bathtub has been overflowing for a long time.”

What uses would be considered essential? Not many, he said. Certain medical devices and airplanes, for example.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if you had to prove it was safe before it could be included in products?” he said. “In the name of all the Amaras of the world,” he said, referring to Strande, the young woman featured in the 3M Reformer story. 

In 2017, a nearly 15-pound tumor was found in Strande’s liver, and she was diagnosed with a rare cancer called fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma; it strikes one in 5 million Americans ​​between the ages of 15 and 39.

She’s since had more than 20 surgeries to battle tumors. In recent months, tumors grew next to her heart, wrapping around her upper right chest, fracturing her ribs. Surgery is no longer an option, and there is no cure. 

Even though she is in “more profound pain,” she wants to testify in person, if she is physically able, her mother Dana said.

“It’s very important for me to testify because my life has been significantly changed,” Strande said. “I’m really sick of seeing other people also go through similar losses with cancer and disease.”