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The Persistent Threat of 'Forever Chemicals': A Comprehensive Overview

Perfluorinated chemicals (PFAS), also known as 'forever chemicals', have become an increasing concern due to their potential health risks and environmental persistence. Developed by Minnesota's Maplewood-based 3M, these chemicals are found in a variety of everyday items, including firefighting foam and household products, and are known for their inability to break down naturally.

The Minnesota Health Department has recently updated the health-based values for PFAS, marking the sixth such revision. The health risk level for PFOA, a type of PFAS, has been significantly reduced from 34 parts per trillion to just .24 parts per trillion, according to Sarah Fossen Johnson, the department's Environmental Surveillance and Assessment Manager. This reduction poses a challenge, as current testing methods are unable to detect such low levels, necessitating the development of more sensitive testing techniques.

These updated risk levels are designed to provide guidance for the most vulnerable populations, such as bottle-fed infants and children. However, they do not alter the existing drinking water standards. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to soon announce new maximum contaminant levels (MCL), which may lead to more Minnesota cities treating water for PFAS. Notably, the federal levels are anticipated to be three times higher than the state guidance, as the EPA also takes into account the economic implications of contaminant removal.

The health consequences associated with PFAS are severe. Research indicates that humans, especially children, are highly sensitive to these chemicals, with exposure potentially reducing immune response to vaccines. A recent study by the Yale School of Public Health also suggests that PFAS present in tap water and consumer products could expedite cancer progression.

In this study, colon cancer cells exposed to PFAS exhibited signs of metastasis, a process that spreads the disease to other parts of the body, complicating treatment. This is particularly concerning given that approximately 97% of people in the US have detectable levels of 'forever chemicals' in their blood. PFAS are prevalent in many household items such as cooking utensils and fabrics due to their water-resistant and anti-stick properties.

Minnesota is actively working to clean up areas contaminated by PFAS, with the newly revised health risk levels potentially expanding these efforts. However, according to Tom Higgins, superfund remedial section manager at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the total cost of safeguarding drinking water based on the new federal standards and state health-based values could exceed $1 billion.

Despite the high cost and testing challenges, state officials advise against individuals testing private wells for PFAS. The state response plan includes reducing exposure by eliminating these chemicals in as many products as possible and advising individuals to avoid or replace items containing PFAS.

In summary, 'forever chemicals' are a persistent, invisible threat present in our environment and everyday items. As we continue to research and develop more sensitive testing methods, it's crucial to remain vigilant and proactive. Minimizing exposure to these chemicals and advocating for stronger regulations and cleaner alternatives is essential in protecting our health and environment.