DULUTH, MN-- What are PFAS? If you don't know, you're not alone. Scientists say these contaminants could be in the water you're drinking and they're likely already in your blood.
PFAS are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. They're man-made chemicals and they've been used in a wide variety of products since the 1940's.
They're now so widespread, the EPA says you can find them in food, commercial household products, your workplace, your home, your drinking water, and just out in the environment.
The problem with PFAS is they're also known as forever chemicals. That means they don't break down, they can accumulate over time, and extensive studies have shown they're bad for us.
The 148th Fighter Wing is a key source for PFAS contamination in Duluth.
Their high-flying jets need high-powered fuel. When it catches fire, it's hard to put out. The 148th fire department uses firefighting foam, which contains high levels of PFAS.
"We don't really have a choice to divert from those types of products," said Maj. Ryan Blazevic, a Bioenvironmental Engineer for the 148th.
They have to use the foam. It's mandated by the military and the FAA because it works quickly on fires.
In 2007, the 148th learned the foam could be harmful. They started testing in 2010.
"To our knowledge, we're one of the first military installations which began testing for this substance.," said 148th Spokesperson Audra Flanagan.
The tests showed the PFAS foam had contaminated the ground water in certain areas of the base, and it was spreading.
"We're also finding these types of chemicals in lower concentrations in the surface water downstream in Miller Creek and in some of the streams and wetlands that connect to Rice Lake to the north," said Mark Elliot, a Hydrologist for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency,
Elliot said they tested 50 private drinking water wells in the area. Two came back positive.
"They're the closest ones, just downstream, and those two wells are the only ones that we've identified PFAS contaminants that are over Minnesota Health advisory levels," said Elliot.
He said the people who live on those properties are receiving bottled water while more testing continues.
"We do have indications that these contaminants are spreading offsite, and so that's something we need to investigate further," Elliot said.
Duluth is not alone in its PFAS problem. The non partisan, non profit Environmental Working Group recently tested water from 44 communities.
43 came back positive, including Hayward, Bemidji, and Minneapolis/St. Paul. Senior scientist David Andrews said it's worrying.
"People should be concerned because actually the latest scientific research indicates that exposure, even down to the part per trillion level, could be of concern," he said.
According to Andrews, low levels of PFAS exposure have been linked to reduced effectiveness of vaccines, lowered immune systems, and increases in cholesterol.
High levels of exposure have been linked to a wide variety of cancers and infertility.
"These chemicals seem to hit every single system in the body," said Andrews.
PFAs are not regulated as part of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
The Minnesota Department of Health tested for PFAS in Duluth's drinking water 5 years ago. They say no contaminants were found in that sample.
Health department reps say Duluth gets its drinking water from Lake Superior, so PFAS in the groundwater nearby is "not an immediate concern".
They don't have plans to test the water for PFAS again any time soon. Elliot thinks they should.
"I think there should be testing and screening for PFAS contaminants, yeah," he said.
The 148th is taking steps to mitigate their use of PFAS firefighting foam. They no longer train with the foam and only use it when absolutely necessary.
"To my knowledge, in the recent years we haven't expended any foam that's documented here on this installation," said Blazevic.
The Air Force is testing 200 air bases nationwide to see where the PFAS contamination is worst. They'll then prioritize cleanup.
"The safety of our community, our airmen, their families, is paramount to us and we take this topic very seriously," said Flanagan.
The National Defense Authorization Act also set a timeline for military units to move away from using PFAS firefighting foam by the year 2024.
Taking steps to protect yourself from PFAS in the water won't come cheap.
Andrews said typical filter systems won't cut it. A reverse-osmosis system under your sink will filter out all the chemicals, but they cost a few hundred dollars.
"Really we want to see community-wide filtration systems and we think the polluters should be held accountable for that so the companies that manufactured and released this contamination should be the ones paying for the cleanup and the filtration systems," said Andrews.
According to Andrews, regulations have been slow to catch up with the growing awareness of just how wide-spread these contaminants are.
There are no enforceable state or federal PFAS regulations, just suggested guidelines.
Despite not testing Duluth's drinking water since 2015, the Minnesota Department of Health said they have no reason to suspect PFAS are in Duluth's water source in any concentrations that would pose a health concern.
However, because PFAS are forever chemicals, any delay to address the issue could be too late.