Cancer drove her crusade against PFAS, leading to new state law
HomeHome > News > Cancer drove her crusade against PFAS, leading to new state law

Cancer drove her crusade against PFAS, leading to new state law

Jul 23, 2023

OAKDALE, Minn. — The last time Amara Strande testified in front of Minnesota lawmakers, her voice was shaky, a side effect of the tumor pressing on her throat and the cancer that had spread through her lungs.

It was the fifth time Strande had spoken to state lawmakers in support of legislation to ban a group of toxic chemicals, PFAS, which she blamed for her rare form of liver cancer. She wore a maroon blazer, which covered numerous scars on her body, a legacy of 20 surgeries she underwent after being diagnosed at 15 years old.

While she struggled to speak that March day, the same was not true two months earlier when she first addressed state lawmakers.

“I have spent the last five years fighting cancer with every ounce of my being. And I will for the rest of my life,” Strande said during that testimony. “Through no fault of my own, I was exposed to these toxic chemicals. And as a result, I will die with this cancer.”

On April 14, Strande died at age 20, just weeks before lawmakers would pass the legislation now known as “Amara’s Law,” banning the use of PFAS in Minnesota.

Strande’s death resonated in the eastern suburbs of the Twin Cities, where the 3M corporation has its headquarters and where the company became a major manufacturer of products containing PFAS. The company says it is working to make things right with cities such as Oakdale, where Strande went to high school. At the same time, it is contending with numerous lawsuits over its practices.

For the last several months, Strande’s family and friends have been celebrating her life and grieving her loss. Some 700 people attended her funeral, and another 250 watched online, according to her father, Michael Strande.

“Nothing replaces Amara. Not even Amara’s Law,” her mother, Dana Strande said in an interview. “She had a lot to give the world.”

In honoring Strande, friends and family feel compelled to carry on her crusade. PFAS — short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — have been linked to infertility, thyroid problems and several kinds of cancer.

Used for years in nonstick coating, flame-retardant equipment and moisture-repellent clothing, these “forever chemicals” pervade America’s drinking water and food supply. And while the most dangerous forms of PFAS have been phased out, environmental activists nationwide are mobilizing to get the remaining compounds banned nationwide.

Jeff Munter, a friend of Strande’s who testified alongside her at the Minnesota legislature, said it would have been “disrespectful” to drop the fight after she passed away. He said that if Minnesota’s PFAS ban is taken up by Congress, he’s ready to testify.

“I’m going to be right up there talking about my experience with my friend Amara,” he said.

While local allies see Amara’s Law as a breakthrough, they acknowledge it does not solve their immediate problem in Washington County — a collection of suburbs east of St. Paul that includes Oakdale.

Decades ago, 3M — then known as Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing — started dumping PFAS waste in pits near Oakdale and other parts of Washington County, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). That dumping has since resulted in a nearly 200-square-mile underground plume of contaminated groundwater, which by 2004 had tainted drinking water supplies for more than 140,000 residents, the agency says.

PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because of their extreme durability: They don’t break down in the environment or degrade. That endurance remains true under Tartan High School, where the gigantic PFAS plume continues to taint the groundwater awaiting remediation.

Tartan High, founded in 1971, is a campus of roughly 1,600 students. It’s a high school like many others, with proms and sports teams, including a proud history of victorious basketball. It is also known for cancer cases.

Janice Churchill, who worked as a math teacher at Tartan High School for 21 years, said that between 2005 and 2015, five of the school’s students died of various cancers, and others were diagnosed with the disease.

You wouldn’t have expected that number “if things were normal,” said Churchill, who suspects that exposure to PFAS contributed.

As a student, Amara Strande played softball and loved to sing and play music, and she continued some of those activities even after being diagnosed with cancer. But she quickly gravitated to an informal social network at the school.

The group became known as “the cancer kids.”

Strande grew up in a comfortable middle-class home with her parents and sister Nora. Her mother, a pastor, and father, a Catholic liturgical director, moved the family to Maplewood, a mile away from 3M headquarters, when Amara was 3. As a young girl, her parents said, she dreamed of becoming a pop star.

3M was part of the family’s everyday life. The company — which had a net income of $5.7 billion in 2022 — remains the dominant driver of the local economy and the family was surrounded by neighbors who worked at 3M.

In the mid-2000s, the city’s relationship with 3M started to change. Testing by the Minnesota Department of Health revealed the company’s waste-handling practices had polluted the aquifer and at least four water wells serving Oakdale.

While the agency was later accused of delaying its groundwater investigations, subsequent testing found that PFAS had tainted the taps of several communities, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. As a result, 3M agreed to pay Oakdale $10 million for new water treatment systems to filter PFAS and helped at least one other community with water service.

Like some at Tartan High School, Amara would joke about her history of drinking the “3M cancer water,” her mother said.

Then, in 2017, Strande began suffering from severe abdominal pain, shoulder aches and frequent nosebleeds. A routine school physical turned into multiple surgeries to remove a nearly 15-pound tumor in her liver.

Strande was diagnosed with Stage 4 fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma — a cancer so rare it afflicts just 1 in 5 million people nationwide between the age of 15 and 39, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Strande’s cancer set her on a path of agony and repeated surgeries — 20 in all — to remove tumors. Along with the surgeries came radiation and chemotherapy treatments, and toward the end, some experimental therapies.

Throughout it all, Strande continued to attend high school and play music. She joined the Minnesota’s Chamber Choir, purposely omitting mention of her cancer during auditions, her mother said, to avoid being selected because of pity.

In the spring of 2022, the 19-year-old Strande started to record some of her songs, including one, “I Am the Strange.”

I can scream as loud as I can

But no one seems to hear me

Twisted and burning and rotting

I cry inside but my eyes are dry.

The music helped her cope. “I’m in love with life but life isn’t in love with me and I can’t get over it,” she wrote in her journal. “I’m going to die.”

Five years after Strande was diagnosed, her doctors told her that there was nothing left to try. By then, the tumors on the right side of her body forced her to relearn to write and paint with her left hand. She eventually lost the ability to play the piano and the guitar.

At the urging of Avonna Starck, the state director for Minnesota’s Clean Water Action group, Strande started testifying in favor of state legislation to ban PFAS, often hiding her wheelchair before entering the chambers. Her appearances gained increasing notice, and her friends joined her in seeking to change Minnesota law.

Strande died two days before her 21st birthday. That motivated her allies even more.

Outside and inside the state Capitol, Munter and others close to Amara held signs that read: “Save lives, stop PFAS” and “My life is more important than pan spray.” They yelled chants such as “Hey hey! Ho ho! PFAS have got to go!”

The bill, which received pushback from divided legislatures in previous sessions, passed with bipartisan support two weeks after Strande died. It bans all uses of PFAS in products by 2032 — except those that are necessary for public health — and requires manufacturers to report their use of PFAS in products to the state by 2026. It also prohibits specific uses in several products starting in 2025.

State Rep. Jeff Brand (D), lead author on legislation, said he was outraged upon learning that these “forever chemicals” had become nearly ubiquitous in people’s bloodstreams.

“We had no choice about it,” he said in an interview. “We had no choice to say we don’t want that in our bodies.”

Andrea Lovoll, the legislative director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said that Strande was key in getting the legislation passed.

“The fact is that she dedicated the end of her life to making sure that nobody else suffered from PFAS,” said Lovoll, who had been working to ban PFAS in Minnesota for three years.

Like others who knew and loved Amara, Dana Strande concedes she cannot prove that PFAS contributed to her daughter’s cancer.

While numerous studies have linked the chemicals to cancers in laboratory animals, the Environmental Protection Agency says that “research is still ongoing to determine how different levels of exposure to different PFAS can lead to a variety of health effects.”

What is known is that 3M operated under the weak environmental laws of the 1950s and ’60s to dump PFAS at local 3M sites and at least one public landfill, and that subsequent studies have found those communities face a heightened risk of cancer.

The company stated that its disposal of waste at those sites “was a common and accepted practice at the time” and that it was likely that “some of this waste” contained chemicals known as PFAS, according to evidence filed in a Minnesota lawsuit against 3M.

While DuPont was the company that patented PFAS-coated Teflon, 3M became its major manufacturer, and eventually used PFAS in numerous products, ranging from medical devices to fire fighting foam.

According to investigations by Minnesota regulators, the company by 1966 was disposing of 4 million gallons of “chemical wet scrap per year” in mostly unlined pits. It also was aware of the potential for water contamination, according to documents filed as evidence in the lawsuit.

The company dumped the chemicals at sites in Oakdale and three other communities — Cottage Grove (where PFAS was also manufactured), Lake Elmo and Woodbury. Regulators eventually detected PFAS in 100 of 102 closed landfills across the state, according to the MPCA. Under the landfill in Washington County, where the Strandes live, PFAS levels in groundwater were more than ten times higher than the health standard.

A 2017 study by David Sunding, a products liability expert and University of California at Berkeley professor, found that a child who died in Washington County between 2003 and 2015 was 171 percent more likely to have had cancer than a child who died in the surrounding area. An Oakdale resident who died between 2003 and 2015 was 19 percent more likely to have a record of cancer than people in the residing area, the study found.

Sunding — an expert witness in the Minnesota lawsuit against 3M — also found that Washington County residents had been diagnosed with more cases of kidney, prostate and bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and leukemia than their counterparts in other Minnesota counties.

Other studies are less conclusive. A 2018 paper by the Minnesota Department of Health found “small excesses of total cancers and female breast cancer” in Oakdale, but no overall increase in cancer in eight communities affected by PFAS contamination. That paper preceded Minnesota’s 2018 decision to end its lawsuit against 3M in return for a $850 million settlement.

In a statement at the time, a 3M executive said the company “never believed” there was a health issue with its chemicals, but decided “to move past this litigation and work together with the state on activities and projects to benefit the environment and our communities.”

Contacted for this article, 3M spokesman Sean Lynch declined to make a representative available for an interview, or answer questions on how the company currently views the toxicity of PFAS.

“We have and will continue to deliver on our commitments — including remediating PFAS, investing in water treatment, and collaborating with communities,” the company said in an emailed statement, reiterating a previous announcement that it will end manufacturing of the chemicals “and work to discontinue the use of PFAS in our products by the end of 2025.”

In Minnesota, some ex-students of Tartan High School continue to blame the company for their cancers.

Derek Lowen was a 14-year-old freshman at Tartan in 2004 when he started experiencing migraines that led him to throw up or pass out. He had a brain tumor the size of a baseball pressing on his skull, he said in an interview.

Following surgery, Lowen went through nearly two years of physical therapy relearning how to walk and regain other motor skills, he said. He was declared cancer free in 2011, but now has memory loss, he said, and asserts that his exposure to PFAS caused his cancer.

He remains bitterly angry, having lost his high school years to medical treatments that “took away from time that the normal kids got to socialize and discover themselves and stuff,” Lowen said.

For the Twin Cities and their suburbs, the costs continue to mount. Removing and destroying PFAS from water and biosolids from Minnesota’s wastewater treatment facilities could cost between $14 billion and $28 billion over 20 years, according to a new report published by the MPCA.

The study also includes the cost of cleaning up municipal infrastructure, such as water treatment plants, to prevent the chemical from being released through city pipes, according to Rebecca Higgins, the MPCA’s senior hydrogeologist for the east metro unit.

“Prevention is really the best level of effort … because once it’s out in the environment, it is extremely expensive and difficult to get out,” Higgins said.

The 3M company continues to confront that expense. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against the company, alleging it recognized that its PFAS products could cause cancer, low fertility, birth defects and other health problems.

Just last week, a federal study estimated that PFAS now taints nearly half of the nation’s tap water. In a multistate June settlement separate from its Minnesota one, the company agreed to pay $10.3 billion over 13 years to provide funding for public water suppliers that have detected PFAS. As it did in 2018 with Minnesota, the company stated the June settlement “is not an admission of liability.”

In the months since his daughter’s death, Michael Strande continues to walk into the family’s living room with the expectation that he will see Amara with her sister, creating evocative paintings. Or perhaps she will be cuddling with one of her cats or composing original music in her private studio.

Dana Strande said she still struggles to pass by her daughter’s room.

“It’s just so hard to face how much I miss her,” she said. “I feel if I begin to cry I will never stop.”

At the same time, the family worries about their residual risks, including the safety of their filtered tap water. Amara’s sister, Nora Strande, also fears some of the products she finds on store shelves. “I can’t clean it up. I can’t keep myself safe,” she said.

The family is dedicated to not adding to that contamination — so much so that, in laying Amara to rest, they had her cremated, with her ashes placed in a vault without paint and not lined with plastic.

“We did not want to surround her remains with the chemicals,” her mother said.

Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.

What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.

Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

What about your role in climate change? Our climate coach Michael J. Coren is answering questions about environmental choices in our everyday lives. Submit yours here. You can also sign up for our Climate Coach newsletter.