3M is back in hot water over PFAS “Forever Chemicals”

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It just wasn’t a good year for 3M.

Over the summer, the Saint Paul, MN-based company had to bankrupt its Aearo Technologies unit to resolve a massive litigation issue involving veterans and the company’s earbuds.

Meanwhile, 3M continues to defend its use of toxic substances such as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The latest PFAS lawsuit comes from California.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta last week filed a public health lawsuit against makers of PFAS to recoup the cost of cleaning up these pollutants, known as “forever chemicals.”

Bonta claims the chemicals are causing irreparable damage to the state’s natural resources, and the manufacturers who use them are engaging in a widespread campaign to deceive the public. Both 3M and DuPont are named in the lawsuit, but DuPont claims it was misnamed in the lawsuit because it has never made products with PFOA, PFAS, or fire-fighting foam.

In a statement, 3M spokeswoman Carolyn LaViolette said the company has “acted responsibly around products containing PFAS and will defend its record of environmental responsibility.”

Bonta claims that 3M and DuPont knew or should have known that PFAS are toxic and harmful to human health and the environment, but continued to produce them for mass use and hid their harms from the public. As a result, these toxic “forever chemicals” are ubiquitous in California’s bays, lakes, streams, and rivers; in its fish, wildlife, and soil; and in the bloodstream of 98% of Californians, the lawsuit says.

“PFAS are as ubiquitous as they are harmful in California,” Bonta said. “As a result of decades of deception, PFAS are in our waters, our clothes, our homes and even our bodies. The damage done by 3M, DuPont, and other manufacturers of PFAS is nothing short of staggering, and without drastic action, California will deal with the damage from these toxic chemicals for generations to come. Today’s lawsuit is the result of a year-long investigation that found the manufacturers of PFAS knowingly violated state consumer protection and environmental laws. We will not let them off the hook because of the pernicious damage done to our state.”

PFAS are a class of thousands of toxic chemicals. This lawsuit affects seven common PFAS found in drinking water supplies, surface water and groundwater in California: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA); perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS); perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS); perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS); perfluorohexanoic acid (PFHxA); perfluoroheptanoic acid (PFHpA); and perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA).

PFAS are commonly used in consumer products such as food packaging, cookware, clothing, carpets, shoes, fabrics, polishes, waxes, paints and cleaning products, as well as in fire fighting foams designed to quickly extinguish liquid fuel fires. These so-called “forever chemicals” are stable in the environment, resistant to degradation, persistent in soil, and have been known to leak into groundwater. PFOS, a PFAS chemical manufactured exclusively by 3M beginning in the 1940s, was a component in firefighting foams used by the military, airports, refineries and fire departments for decades before being phased out in the early 2000s.

PFAS have been found in the blood of most Californians. Human exposure to PFAS can be through contaminated air, water, soil, or food and consumer products. Individuals working or living on or near military bases, airports, industrial plants and local fire departments where firefighting foam has been used were likely to have been exposed to dangerous levels of PFAS contaminants. PFAS can have adverse health effects including developmental disorders, liver, kidney, testicular, breast, pancreas and prostate cancer, poor pregnancy outcomes, infertility, reduced bone density in children and effects on the thyroid and immune systems. Exposure to PFOA and PFOS also limited the effectiveness of common vaccines in several studies, the lawsuit states.

Benta alleges in the lawsuit that 3M and DuPont began testing the physiological and toxicological properties of PFAS as early as the 1950s. Because of these internal studies, manufacturers knew that PFAS are toxic to humans and the environment. By the 1960s, manufacturers had confirmed that PFAS leached into groundwater and contaminated the environment, and by the 1970s they had confirmed that PFAS bioaccumulate in humans.

3M’s solutions based on PFAS include Novec Engineered Fluids, 3M Fluorinert Electronic Liquids, 3M Performance Fluids and the company’s fluoropolymer products. Of these, Novec fluids are most relevant to the medical device industry and the broader advanced manufacturing industry. 3M said its Novec fluids offer cleaning performance as well as a safer alternative for workers to other cleaning solvents used in key industries such as electronics, transportation, medical devices and advanced manufacturing.

The company said it manufactures these products at select facilities worldwide using processes designed to help ensure the safety of 3M workers and the communities where those facilities are located.

“We are committed to acting responsibly and are taking steps to minimize our environmental impact through the use of the latest control technologies, and we continue to explore new and innovative means to uphold our commitment to environmental protection and sustainability,” stated 3M.

3M has been quietly dealing with PFAS issues all year while we were distracted by the company’s earplug litigation

In September, 3M closed the Zimmerman et al Lawsuit, a putative class action lawsuit in Grand Rapids, MI. If the court agrees to the settlement, 3M and its co-defendants will collectively pay $54 million.

In August, 3M issued a press release commenting on the actions taken by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding the manufacture of PFOA and PFOS, which 3M phased out in the early 2000s. 3M said it has implemented remediation measures at sites where it manufactured or disposed of these materials, and the company acknowledged other companies could do more.

3M said it wants to work with the EPA on the issue, but the company disagrees with the agency’s proposed methods for handling PFOA and PFOS, including designating them as hazardous under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.

“The EPA’s proposed classification of PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances is unnecessary, inappropriate and not based on the best available scientific evidence,” 3M said. “This action will not help promote timely or adequate remediation of these materials and could actually delay action.”

The company said that environmental agency leaders, industry groups and others have expressed concerns about such a designation and are trying to find alternatives that would meet the EPA’s goal.

“There are better, faster and more constructive ways to reduce exposure to PFOA and PFOS when and where appropriate, such as: “Many such measures are already underway.”

In July, the Flemish government and 3M Belgium agreed that 3M will invest more than €571 million to benefit the people of Flanders (northern part of Belgium) and implement certain previously agreed remedial actions related to PFAS. This agreement cooperatively resolves ongoing disagreements between the Flemish government and 3M, the company said.

In December 2021, 3M and the City of Guin Water Works and Sewers Authority (GWWSB) in Guin, AL entered into an agreement to address the presence of PFAS in the Guin area. 3M agreed to help build a new drinking water treatment plant to increase capacity and use new technology to treat the drinking water supplied to GWWSB customers, as well as a new wastewater treatment plant.

The California lawsuit seeks injunctive relief, damages, penalties, restitution and reduction. The requested remedy includes nationwide treatment and destruction of PFAS, including but not limited to treatment of drinking water by regulated water systems; water from private wells and unregulated systems for drinking and irrigation; and water from other wastewater treatment plants and systems. The lawsuit also seeks payment of funds necessary to assess human health and environmental impacts through environmental testing, medical surveillance, public notice, replacement water (for the period between testing and treatment installation), and safe disposal and destruction mitigate.

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