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3M’s support for PFAS could cost taxpayers billions of dollars

The failure of manufacturers to report and deal with potential PFAS problems when they learned of them is saddling the companies with mounting legal costs.

Members of a 3M committee at headquarters in Maplewood had two big questions to answer in spring of 1978.

Did studies showing PFAS chemicals were more toxic to animals than 3M thought pose risks to public health and the environment? Or did research that PFAS were collecting in the bodies of 3M workers pose risks to public health and the environment?

If the answer to either or both questions was yes, the 3M Fluorochemicals Technical Review Committee knew it was required to tell the federal government about those risks within 15 days. Instead, confidential meeting minutes show, committee members decided the evidence wasn’t strong enough to warn the government or the public.

Yet the confidential minutes of a second meeting a month later also show the committee “urgently recommended that all reasonable steps be taken immediately to reduce exposure of employees to these compounds.”

These 40-year-old choices, found among tens of thousands of pages of secret documents unsealed by the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office and a Washington County judge, represented a critical juncture, say public health and environmental advocates.

The failure of 3M and other manufacturers, such as DuPont, to publicly report and deal with potential PFAS problems when they first learned of them is saddling the companies with mounting legal costs because of lawsuits brought by several states and individuals. And it’s about to cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars.

3M told the Star Tribune that it has paid “more than $1.2 billion” to treat PFAS pollution. That is a fraction of the $10 billion in taxpayer funds the country’s new bipartisan infrastructure bill allocates for PFAS cleanup. Other proposed PFAS pollution bills in Congress allocate billions more to clean up a mess 3M and other corporations made.

The Department of Defense spent $1.1 billion on PFAS cleanup in 2020 and estimates it will spend $2.1 billion more in 2021, according to the Government Accountability Office. Officials say it will take decades to address the pollution.

University of Michigan Prof. Allen Burton, editor of the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, said knowledge that PFAS was accumulating in humans “should have been enough to stop production.”

It wasn’t. 3M and others chose not to tell the public what they knew. They continued using PFAS that, over time, spread to the bodies of most Americans and hundreds of millions around the world. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS, do not break down naturally. Instead, they migrate throughout the environment, circulating through surface and groundwaters, soils and air. This results in potentially substantial exposures and increases in fish, wildlife and humans.

And as part of a $671 million lawsuit settlement in 2017, Dupont convened a panel to study a 3M-made PFAS called PFOA. DuPont and Chemours Co., which produced Teflon in Parkersburg, W.Va., using the 3M product, denied any wrongdoing. However, Dupont’s panel concluded that PFOA was likely linked to kidney and testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, and hypertension during pregnancy for people living around the Teflon plant.

The FDA says the data are “inadequate to evaluate cancer effects associated with PFBS exposure,” referring to one of the chemicals in the PFOA class. But the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, has classified PFOA as possibly carcinogenic.

‘Defend our record’

To this day, 3M stands by its handling of PFAS. The company still argues that PFAS are safe to humans in the levels that exist in the environment. The company says it still makes and uses some of the fluorochemicals “to help make innovations like lifesaving medical devices and low-emission vehicles possible.”

“3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS … and will vigorously defend our record of environmental stewardship,” the company said in June.

PFAS are used in hundreds of everyday products from waterproof clothing and Teflon cookware to food packaging and firefighting foam. It took until the early 2000s for the public to begin to learn that these chemicals also had major problems. By then, PFAS had polluted municipal water systems, groundwater, landfills and military bases at thousands of sites across America. For instance, a new report shows PFAS groundwater pollution at an Air National Guard base near Duluth.

“Cleaning up PFAS contamination is a Biden-Harris administration priority,” an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spokeswoman told the Star Tribune in an e-mail. “The administration is currently discussing options for moving forward with the designation of PFOA and PFOS as a hazardous substance.”

After the EPA under former President Donald Trump strongly opposed a major PFAS regulation bill, new EPA chief Michael Regan has created a new Council on PFAS and is “evaluating the best available science to establish” enforceable maximum contaminant levels for PFOA and PFOS, the most toxic kinds of PFAS, in drinking water, the spokeswoman said.

States are also exploring legislation and regulations. This spring, the Minnesota Legislature banned PFAS from food packaging by 2024.

“There is a substantial amount of peer-reviewed literature documenting adverse effects, which is why there is [now] so much regulatory activity,” Burton said. “I think 3M is on the hook for a lot in this international catastrophe.”

In June, Joanne Stanton told a U.S. Senate committee that she is one of three women on the same street in Warminster, Pa., with a child who developed cancerous brain tumors containing embryonic tissue. Stanton told the Star Tribune that all the mothers and children grew up drinking water heavily polluted with PFAS used in firefighting foam at two nearby military bases.

Research shows that PFAS can cross the placenta from mother to fetus, said Jamie DeWitt, a PFAS researcher at East Carolina University. Breast-feeding babies can also ingest PFAS from their mothers, Harvard epidemiologist Philippe Grandjean said.