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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

A stolen birthright

How do Minnesotans gain the confidence to eat the fish they catch


Our story last week on the latest research on the prevalence of chemicals known collectively as PFAS in freshwater fish should have brought a tear to the eye of every Minnesotan.
Catching and eating our own locally-caught fish has been a tradition and a way of life for countless Minnesotans over the years, and it always brought with it a sense of well-being. The belief that we were eating a food that was not just good tasting but was healthful in every sense of the word.
So, where do Minnesotans go to get that sense of well-being back? Where do we go to regain a once important source of healthy food?
Sadly, there is no place to go, at least not here in Minnesota. The study, which was based on Environmental Protection Agency testing of fish fillets in Minnesota and across the country, showed dangerous levels of PFAS and related chemicals in almost every sample. Some were higher and some were lower, but the numbers were troubling across the board.
The fish tested included Minnesota staples, like walleye and both large- and small-mouth bass. The results showed that just one meal of freshwater fish per year was enough to cause a spike in PFAS levels in human blood. Anglers who regularly eat freshwater fish had PFAS levels in their blood anywhere from 10-27 times the levels found in the general public.
PFAS, which have been increasingly in the news in recent years, has been shown to impact our immune system and is linked to cancer, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, and reproductive and developmental impacts.
The dangers of these chemicals have been known for years and yet the government failed to take steps to end the manufacturing of these synthetics, which were used in everything from fire-fighting foam to fabric protecting spray. And companies, like Minnesota-based 3M, continued to manufacture these products for years even as their dangers became increasingly apparent.
What is lacking today is both guidance and a discussion about how we avoid such tragedies in the future.
First, we need to hear from agencies like the Minnesota Department of Health, to better understand the risks associated with the levels of PFAS found in our state’s waters. As with mercury, we need more testing, lake-by-lake, and recommendations about how much locally-caught fish Minnesotans can safely consume. As it is, Minnesotans are flying blind. Fishing and eating fish is too important to Minnesota’s cultural traditions and economy to continue to stick our heads in the sand.
And what about accountability? It’s true that the companies that made millions of dollars off the manufacture of these products may face a form of accountability. 3M has been targeted by literally hundreds of lawsuits over its involvement and a recent analysis from Bloomberg Law suggests that the company could face eventual bankruptcy as a result of its potential liability.
While that’s a form of accountability, it doesn’t make up for the contamination of an important source of what was once high-quality food. The recent study notes that the loss of locally-caught fish as a healthy food source will fall hardest on those of lower means, including recent immigrants or tribal communities, that often depend heavily on the eating of fish for sustenance. As always, the poor suffer the worst consequences when we abuse the commons.
This is, of course, an age-old story about corporations using our common environment, be it our air, water, or land, as a free dumping ground for their toxic products, emissions, and discharges. PFAS is only one of a thousand examples, but it’s one that will be with us for a long, long time. PFAS are what are known as “forever chemicals,” because they don’t readily break down in the environment. They will be polluting our waters today and for generations in the future. These chemicals have robbed Minnesotans of a birthright.
We know there are those who advocate for less regulation of business. We also know that many of us, with good reason, don’t trust the government to be the check on business activities that they should be. In part because of that mistrust, Minnesotans and Americans in general have been too willing to starve our regulatory agencies through understaffing, weak laws, or lax enforcement. The story of PFAS and the impact to Minnesota fish is a classic example of what happens when that anti-regulatory attitude holds sway. It’s time we once again acknowledge the risks of letting unchecked corporations salt our very Earth.