Stain-resistors Mark on Minnesota
Today we present another installment in Minnesota 2020’s series of columns focusing on environmental policy issues. It’s part of our continuing collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.
They keep popcorn grease from dripping on our hands; stains from setting into our clothes; and cooking a whole lot easier. They’re Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs).
We know these ingredients and byproducts better by their two major name brands: Scotchguard, (3M) and Teflon, (DuPont). PFCs are also found in other less high profile stain-resistant, heat-resistant, water-resistant and non-stick products that make all of our lives more convenient.
However, after 60 years of manufacturers’ use, these conveniences have racked up environment costs, especially in the Twin Cities’ east metro. Continued use of unregulated PFCs in household products could also pose health threats.
Since their first use in the 1950’s, lax state and federal regulation has allowed companies like 3M and DuPont to make and market these chemicals without studying their effects on humans or the environment.
More recently, Minnesota has stepped up regulations and after lengthy court battles, 3M has responded with funding to mitigate past environmental contamination. It has also phased out manufacturing of some PFCs, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).
However, more change is needed within our state and federal regulatory structure to ensure industry is held accountable for contaminating us and our environment.
Part of what makes consumer products containing PFCs so valuable is also what makes PFCs so damaging. They’re resistant to breakdown in the environment and accumulative in humans and animals. They are either released into the atmosphere from factories, discharged by wastewater treatment plants or urban runoff, or they seep into the groundwater from disposal and spill sites.
Also, because PFCs are in so many products, they have been found in at least trace levels all over Minnesota, including Twin Cities waterways and portions of the Mississippi. However, the MPCA says there are only a few areas where concentrations are high enough to warrant action.
These are mainly areas where PFC-containing products were produced and dumped, including Cottage Grove, Oakdale, Woodbury, and parts of Washington County, according to the MPCA.
Production largely took place before current state and federal regulations on toxins, and an extensive and expensive clean-up plan is under way.
There are few and limited studies of PFCs’ health effects in people, but high concentrations in animals have been linked to cancer. Studies have also shown that fish in several Twin Cities lakes and parts of the Mississippi River have concentrations of PFCs that exceed the Minnesota Department of Health safety guidelines.
Even if PFCs were banned today, their global mass would continue to rise, with more than a half-century of consumer products persisting in the environment and in the human body.
It is crucial that efforts are made to understand and control PFCs’ pollution. Still, there has been some progress made. In 2000, 3M accepted a voluntary agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to phase out production of a certain PFC. In 2006, Dupont and producers of another kind of PFC agreed to limit its manufacturing emissions by 95%.
This chemical calamity has resulted in large part because of a regulatory failure in our country. The current system leaves the EPA with few tools to identify emerging pollution problems, or to study the health risks and extent of human exposure to any of the thousands of chemicals found on the consumer market.
The current federal Toxic Substances Control Act currently allows chemical manufacturers to make chemicals and put new compounds on the market without conducting any studies of their effects on people or the environment.
As the nation’s chief regulatory statute for commercial chemicals, this needs to change. Specifically, this act must be rewritten to give the EPA clear authority to suspend a chemical’s production and sale if data is not provided or if data reveals a chemical is not safe.
In addition, the chemical industry must be held accountable to these proposed regulations. Chemical manufacturers must be required to develop and publicize analytical methods to detect PFCs in the human body and the environment. To determine the levels of their chemicals in the general population and environment, the chemical industry must conduct long-term, multi-generational studies.
So what can we do? At a local level, it is important we support the MPCA’s continued efforts to protect us and our environment, especially when it comes to state funding.
In our homes, we can try to avoid cookware with Teflon or other non-stick components; or at the very least, use them strictly as directed. Read the ingredients in products like lotion, cosmetics, nail polish, and shaving cream. Anything with the phrase “fluoro” or “perfluoro” has been produced with chemicals that may generate PFCs as a byproduct.
Facing chemical pollution and health risks such as cancer, infertility and blood disorders, we must work to prevent these stain-protecting chemicals from leaving a permanent mark on Minnesota.
Grace Caird is a junior, majoring in political science and environmental studies, she’s also a member of Macalester’s golf team.