Toxic: 3M knew its chemicals were harmful decades ago, but didn’t tell the public, government

Internal documents show the Minnesota company hid the dangers for decades

By: - December 15, 2022 6:01 am

Sprinklers spray water over the grass on 3M’s Maplewood headquarters Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer

This is part 2 of 2. Read part 1, about East Metro residents who wonder if 3M chemicals made them sick. 

3M toxicologist Richard Purdy did a study in 1998 to see whether any of the company’s perfluorochemicals showed up in the blood of eagles and albatrosses.

That seemed unlikely, given the birds’ diet consists mostly of fish. So Purdy was surprised and disturbed when he found levels in their blood similar to those found in human blood. It even showed up in bald eagle nestlings whose only food was fish their parents fed them from remote lakes.

That indicated what Purdy later called “widespread environmental contamination” — the likelihood the manmade, toxic chemicals were moving through the food chain and accumulating in animals.

Purdy warned 3M that if wild birds’ blood contained the chemicals, then fish-eating mammals — like otters, mink, porpoise and seals — could have it, too. A study of rats found they had significant levels of a 3M chemical in their livers, likely from eating fishmeal. 

He told company officials in an email there was a significant risk of ecological harm, which should be reported to the EPA.

In response, 3M managers dispersed the team collecting the data, Purdy alleged.

Purdy resigned in 1999 and sent his resignation letter to the EPA, informing them that while 3M had disclosed to the EPA that a chemical called PFOS “had been found in the blood of animals,” it didn’t mention that it was found in the blood of eaglets.

The EPA began investigating the chemicals that year. But by then, 3M had reaped billions of dollars in profits from chemicals that the company had been warned were harming the environment and risking human health. 

The per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) had spread — through groundwater and products like Scotchgard stain repellent, Teflon cookware, food wrapping and fire retardant — and were showing up in the blood of people and animals in every corner of the world. They were in nearly every living thing, from house dust to human blood, in wildlife in the Arctic circle and drinking water, rivers, streams and breast milk. 

Purdy’s warnings were clear, as revealed by former Attorney General Attorney General Lori Swanson, who sued 3M in 2010, alleging the company failed for decades to report that its chemicals could be toxic to humans, animals and the environment, keeping information from regulators and scientists to protect its lucrative revenue stream. 

The morning the case was set to go to trial in 2018, after 22 hours of negotiation, 3M and the state settled. 3M agreed to pay $850 million to help provide Minnesotans clean drinking water. 

The settlement with Minnesota is the third largest natural resource damage settlement in U.S. history, behind the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez oil spills. 

But it amounted to just 2.6% of 3M’s nearly $33 billion in revenue in 2018. 

The company admitted nothing, and maintains to this day that its chemicals have no adverse health or environmental consequences. 

3M spokesman Grant Thompson said in an email that 3M’s position reflects the weight of  scientific evidence from decades of research showing exposure to PFOA and PFOS at current and historical levels found in people and the environment has not been shown to cause adverse health effects.

There must be something in the water

Still, 3M’s settlement with the state of Minnesota is likely the beginning — not the end — of the company’s legal, regulatory and political challenges stemming from both the invention and dumping of the chemicals. 3M and other companies that made the chemicals may have to pay out billions for the damage they caused the environment and people. 

During a 2019 congressional hearing, U.S. Rep. Harley Rouda of California called the contamination of Americans’ drinking water, groundwater, air and food supplies a national emergency.

“These companies got away with poisoning people for more than a half century,” Rouda said.

In August, the EPA proposed designating two perfluorochemicals as hazardous substances under the Superfund law, which would spark federal cleanup standards and could put chemical companies on the hook for billions in cleanup costs. 

The EPA also published new drinking water health advisory levels for several perfluorochemical compounds and plans to propose a national drinking water perfluorochemical regulation soon.

A federal judge in Charleston, S.C., also dealt the company a blow in September, denying 3M’s request for government contractor immunity in a mass tort case alleging 3M and other companies’ firefighting foam are linked to health problems.

Judge Richard ​​Gergel said 3M conducted over 1,000 studies of perfluorochemicals’ effect on human health and the environment, the results of which should have been disclosed to the EPA. 

He wrote that 3M and other chemical manufacturers “had significantly greater knowledge than the government about the properties and risks associated with their products and knowingly withheld highly material information from the government.”

Closer to 3M’s Minnesota headquarters, some sickened residents in the East Metro — where groundwater was contaminated with 3M chemicals — say they’re working with attorneys on a lawsuit. 

David Sunding, a University of California Berkeley professor, published a 2017 report saying Washington County residents who lived in areas where groundwater was contaminated with 3M chemicals had elevated rates of bladder, breast, kidney and prostate cancers, as well as leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

3M disputes that, pointing to a 2018 Minnesota health department report showing that the overall cancer rate in Washington County was “virtually identical” to the statewide average, despite chemical contamination.  

Given the stakes of the litigation, the future of the company — which employs 7,000 people at its massive Maplewood campus and about 13,500 statewide — will hinge in part on how it confronts its own history with these toxic chemicals. 

A recent Bloomberg analysis estimated 3M liabilities for the mass torts case and another over defective earplugs could reach $30 billion, or nearly half of market cap. 

What they knew, when they knew it

A key problem in any 3M defense: Despite the flurry of recent legal, regulatory and political activity, the chemicals’ dangers have been known — and known to 3M — for decades. 

As early as the 1950s, 3M and DuPont scientists began discovering that the chemicals were accumulating in the bodies of humans and animals. 

After compiling 27 million pages of documents and deposing about 200 witnesses in seven years, Minnesota’s former attorney general, Swanson, didn’t just walk away after settling with 3M. She released thousands of internal 3M documents

The Reformer reviewed the documents, which show that company officials were repeatedly warned that the chemicals were accumulating in the environment and detected in the blood of humans and animals, while showing worrisome signs of toxicity. 

Time and again, the company found reasons to delay a full accounting to government regulators, Minnesota communities, and even its own workers. Like tobacco companies’ tardy admission about its cancer-causing drug and the NFL’s approach to concussions, 3M ignored, delayed, minimized and obscured research that raised red flags about the chemicals. 

Internal 3M documents show: 

  • In the 1950s, 3M animal studies consistently found its PFAS chemicals were toxic.
  • By the early 1960s, 3M knew the chemicals didn’t degrade in the environment.
  • 3M knew by the 1970s its chemicals were widely present in the blood of the general U.S. population.
  • A 1970 study of fish had to be abandoned “to avoid severe stream pollution” and because all the fish died. After being exposed to a chemical, the fish couldn’t stay upright and kept crashing into the fish tank and dying.
  • By 1976, 3M knew the chemicals were in its plant workers’ blood at higher levels than normal.
  • A study of a chemical’s effect on 20 rhesus monkeys in 1978 had to be aborted after 20 days because all the exposed monkeys  died.
  • In 1979, a 3M scientist warned that perfluorochemicals posed a cancer risk because they are “known to persist for a long time in the body and thereby give long-term chronic exposure.”
  • In 1979, 3M lawyers advised the company to conceal a 3M chemical compound found in human blood.
  • In 1983, 3M scientists concluded that concerns about its chemicals “give rise to legitimate questions about the persistence, accumulation potential, and ecotoxicity of fluorochemicals in the environment.”
  • Purdy wrote in his resignation letter that in the 1990s, 3M told researchers not to write down their thoughts or have email discussions because of how their “speculations” might be viewed in legal discovery.
  • 3M told employees to mark documents as “attorney-client privileged” regardless of whether attorneys were involved, the state alleged, and minutes of meetings were edited to omit references to health hazards.
  • In 1997, 3M gave DuPont a “material safety data sheet” — which lays out potential hazards — for a chemical. It read, “Warning: contains a chemical which can cause cancer,” citing 1983 and 1993 studies by 3M and DuPont. But 3M removed the label that same year and continued to sell the products for decades without warning.

Thompson, the 3M spokesman, said the documents released by Swanson portray an “incomplete and misleading story that distorts the full record regarding 3M’s PFAS stewardship and who we are as a company.” 

He said 3M disclosed many studies to the EPA over the course of decades, including on the chemicals’ toxicity and “the materials produced and discussed with EPA addressed relevant information and issues.” 

‘The wildest hellcat’

3M’s man-made, toxic chemicals can be traced back to World War II, and the U.S. race to develop atomic weapons in the top-secret Manhattan Project.

Scientists used fluorine gas to separate uranium, and discovered that when fluorine weds with carbon, the bonds are almost impossible to break.

After the war, some of the Manhattan Project scientists were hired by the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3M), which bought the patent to develop perfluorochemicals, according to a 3M book celebrating the company’s history of chemical engineering, called “A Chemical History of 3M.” 

Figuring out how to handle fluorine was a major hurdle for the scientists.

“In its pure, uncontrolled state — fortunately never found in nature — it is one of the most active, most dangerous elements known to man,” the book says. “The greenish-yellow gas will burn steel, water and even asbestos, which earned it a nickname — the wildest hellcat. Strangely, its wildness contributes to fluorine’s unique stability when it is combined with certain compounds.”

When combined with carbon, the resulting fluorochemical can repel water and oil and withstand fire, which had obvious commercial potential.

3M began manufacturing chemicals in Minnesota in the 1950s, and for the next 50 years they were used to make stain repellents, Teflon and other waterproof and fireproof products.

This 1961 3M Scotchgard ad that ran in LIFE magazine was going to be an exhibit in the state’s lawsuit against 3M. Courtesy state of Minnesota

By the 1990s, the chemicals were in many consumer products, such as window cleaners, floor waxes and polishes, fabric and leather protective coatings and carpet and upholstery treatments.

The products were a huge success, and the company was making almost a half a billion dollars per year off them by 2000, when it began — at the EPA’s urging — to phase out production of the chemical used to make Scotchgard. Production of other chemicals continued. 

But the chemicals wouldn’t go away easily: They don’t break down in the environment, and they accumulate in the human body.

3M employee: We pled ignorance

In 1975, a Florida professor called 3M after he and two colleagues discovered a fluorine chemical in human blood samples from Texas and New York.

The scientists suspected the source might be 3M chemicals used in household items such as Teflon cookware and Scotchgard.

Donald Taves, a researcher at the University of Rochester, first reported in the scientific journal Nature in 1968 that the general population had been exposed to the compounds. Then Taves discovered his own blood contained it, according to a 3M document marked “confidential,” obtained in the Minnesota attorney general’s lawsuit.

Taves was working with Warren Guy and Wallace Brey at the University of Florida on a research paper. 

3M chemist G.H. Crawford took the phone call from Taves, and admitted nothing. He wrote in a confidential interoffice memo: “We (pleaded) ignorance but advised him that Scotchgard was a polymeric material not a F.C. acid.”

(In fact, by this point, the company knew its chemicals accumulated in the human body and were toxic, Swanson told a congressional committee. Moreover, Swanson added, 3M refused to identify the chemicals in its products, which for a generation thwarted the scientific community’s understanding of their health impacts.) 

3M still manufactures perfluorochemicals in Cottage Grove, as well as Cordova, Ill., Decatur, Ala., Zwijndrecht, Belgium, and Gendorf, Germany. Photo by Chad Davis

Crawford, the 3M scientist, suggested Guy get blood samples from “uncivilized areas” such as New Guinea “where they don’t use too much Teflon cookware or Scotchgard.”

He told his colleagues that the chemical 3M sold to DuPont to make Teflon cookware was the “least unlikely” explanation, but he didn’t tell Guy that. Crawford wrote that he “adopted a position of scientific curiosity and desire to assist in any way possible” and told Guy that 3M’s people might be able to “clarify” his study findings. 

Another internal document shows Guy, the university researcher, also talked to a 3M employee identified as J.D. LaZerte about his quest to track down the source of chemicals in human blood.

LaZerte wrote in an internal document that he told Guy not to speculate.

Taves, Guy and Brey later discovered plasma from blood banks in five cities suggested “widespread contamination of human tissues with trace amounts of organic fluorocompounds derived from commercial products” such as floor waxes, wax paper, leather and fabric conditioning agents.

After getting the phone calls from researchers, 3M began analyzing its fluorine compounds. Within weeks, they found a compound that was a likely match

By late 1975, 3M sent employees to see Guy and Taves at the University of Rochester, where they agreed to try to isolate and identify fluorochemicals in blood.

In 1976, the company began sampling employees’ blood. 

Tests showed workers at 3M’s Cottage Grove plant called Chemolite had up to 1,000 times the normal amount of fluorochemicals in their blood.

In plant after plant, elevated levels were found, from Decatur, Alabama, to Antwerp, Belgium.

Gergel, the federal judge in South Carolina, wrote in his recent ruling that although 3M helped Guy and Taves identify the compound found in blood, the company told no one else outside 3M for nearly a quarter century, despite the company’s legal duty to alert the EPA about potential harm to human health and the environment.

The judge cited a potential culprit: 3M lawyers, who urged 3M’s lab not to release the true identity of the compound (PFOS), according to an internal 3M document.

Gergel said it would be reasonable to infer that the company knowingly withheld information that PFOS was in the blood of the general population and sought to discredit independent scientific work that would have disclosed this.

“3M did more than simply stay silent despite the company’s knowledge that the mystery compound was PFOS,” Gergel wrote. 

The company went even further in its effort to obfuscate, the judge charged. In 1981, an author of an 1976 internal 3M report that confirmed that the unidentified chemical was in fact PFOS published an article in the same scientific journal as Guy and Taves stating that the mystery compound was not man-made but was a naturally occurring substance. 

DuPont asks 3M for ‘defensive information’

One of 3M’s biggest customers was DuPont, for which it produced chemicals to make Teflon products.

But by late 1975, DuPont was concerned about the possible toxic effects of Teflon and asked 3M for “defensive information” after a rat study found “sub-acute toxicity,” according to a 3M document

After a 1979 meeting between 3M and DuPont, a 3M committee decided its data on the chemicals in workers’ blood samples wasn’t important enough to notify the EPA. Minutes from the meeting said DuPont asked if 3M had done any “chronic studies” on fluorochemicals or planned any in the future. The answer was no, they wouldn’t do such studies unless forced to by regulators.

3M told DuPont that because they’d seen no adverse human health effects and no widespread potential for the chemicals to accumulate, they did not need to notify the EPA, according to a report by Philippe Grandjean, a Dutch scientist who provided expert testimony for the state of Minnesota in its case against 3M.

“3M either closed its eyes to the evidence, or chose purposefully not to find it, or being generous to 3M, it seems possible that 3M may have mistakenly relied on the absence of evidence, despite the old dictum that ‘the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,’ which later became famous in U.S. politics,” Grandjean wrote.

This 1961 Scotchgard ad in LIFE magazine was going to be an exhibit in the state’s lawsuit against 3M. Courtesy state of Minnesota

Employees notified of chemicals in blood  

In 1978, 3M began notifying chemical workers that trace amounts of chemicals were found in the blood of employees at the Cottage Grove, Decatur and Cordova plants.

“There did not appear to be any significant grouping of abnormalities,” according to confidential meeting minutes of 3M’s Fluorochemicals Technical Review Committee.

The committee discussed the potential carcinogenicity of the chemicals, and whether to notify workers and “the appropriate government agency,” given studies showing a PFAS compound was toxic in animals and a 1979 report on toxicity studies on monkeys and rats found PFOS was “certainly more toxic than anticipated.”  

But because there was “no evidence of ill effects,” the committee decided it didn’t constitute a substantial risk based on EPA guidelines pertaining to the Toxic Substances Control Act, which regulates chemicals.

The committee decided to keep exposure to all fluorochemicals to a minimum in all factory operations, and look into monitoring employee urine.

But it was becoming increasingly clear that several of the chemicals were toxic. Soon after, a 3M study of two chemicals found they were “likely to persist in the environment for extended periods.”

“Because of the apparent persistence of these fluorochemicals in the body, the most important question remains possible long-term effects,” the report said.

Prominent toxicologist warns ‘we could have a serious problem’

In the spring of 1979, 3M officials met at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco to talk about their fluorochemical studies and the future.

They also heard from toxicologist Harold Hodge, a professor from the University of California, which dubbed him “the dean of American toxicology.”

An epidemiology study was being done on 3,500 people, but so far there were no “unusual” causes of death.

Hodge recommended the company study the carcinogenicity of its chemicals.

A week later, Hodge asked that 3M add to the meeting minutes that it was of “utmost importance” that the company study whether a certain chemical was present in humans, at what level, and the degree of its persistence.

“If the levels are high and widespread and the half-life is long, we could have a serious problem,” Hodge warned.

Months later, 3M scientist M.T. Case expressed similar concerns — as “responsible 3M scientists” — about the lack of chronic toxicity data more than one year after the rat studies were done.

“I believe it is paramount to begin now an assessment of the potential (if any) of long term (carcinogenic) effects for these compounds which are known to persist for a long time in the body and thereby give long term chronic exposure,” Case wrote in a memo.

‘3M will likely be embarrassed’

Other 3M employees were trying to persuade the company to come clean.

After a California company bought firefighting foam from 3M, it later learned that 3M chemist Eric Reiner told the client that the foam wasn’t biodegradable, contrary to 3M’s advertising claims. 

Furious, the client wrote to 3M in 1988, demanding an explanation.

Reiner implored company officials to do tests on the biodegradability of the chemicals, calling out those responsible in an internal memo.

“I don’t think it is in 3M’s long-term interest to perpetuate the myth that these fluorochemical surfactants are biodegradable,” he wrote. “It is probable that this misconception will eventually be discovered, and when that happens, 3M will likely be embarrassed, and we and our customers may be fined and forced to immediately withdraw products from the market.”

Three years later, company officials were still debating whether to study the environmental effects of fluorochemicals. A draft proposal for a study of long-term effects noted the problem with previous studies was there’s rarely a single fluorochemical in the product, making generalizations difficult.

“Perhaps the most important conclusion from previous studies is the stability of fluorochemicals although stability is one of the most desirable properties fluorochemicals possess,” it said. “For many applications, from an environmental perspective, stability connotes persistence which can be the cause of concern especially when coupled with other properties… taken together, stability, the tendency to bioaccumulate, and biological activity are a potentially troublesome combination.”

3M vice president delays reporting to EPA

By the mid-1990s, that “potentially troublesome combination” was becoming a threat to 3M.

The company’s Toxic Substances Control Act committee recommended in 1998 that 3M notify the EPA and FDA that the chemicals were widely found in human blood.

A “communications plan” included steps for an “orderly exit” from the market.

But one month later, 3M Group Vice President Charles Reich told the committee he decided instead to do a review with a “wider spectrum” of internal and external experts. 

“I have concluded that 3M is not presently in possession of information that would be new to EPA and that reasonably supports a conclusion that suggests a substantial risk of injury to human health or the environment,” he wrote.

This, despite decades of research suggesting otherwise.

3M finally notified the EPA in May 1998 that a fluorochemical (PFOS) was found in the general population’s blood at “very low” levels. The company said its studies of 3M workers found “no adverse effects,” saying, “3M does not believe that any reasonable basis exists to conclude that PFOS presents a substantial risk of injury to health or the environment.”

Judge Gergel recently noted that despite those assurances, 3M’s manager of corporate toxicology, John Butenhoff, urged 3M in 1998 to replace “PFOS-based chemistry as these compounds [are] VERY persistent and thus insidiously toxic.” 

Butenhoff calculated a “safe” level of PFOS in human blood at a little more than 1 part per billion. But 3M’s own studies from roughly the same period found that PFOS concentrations in the blood of the general public were in the range of 30 parts per billion. 

Gergel said Butenhoff’s findings were never reported to the EPA and were revealed only during discovery in the firefighting foam litigation. 

‘This chemical is more stable than many rocks’

By 1998, 3M toxicologist Richard Purdy, the one studying chemicals in eagles and albatrosses, was growing increasingly concerned about those studies of wild birds. 

On Dec. 3, 1998, Purdy said in an email there was a significant risk of ecological harm, which should be reported to the EPA, warning, “The levels we are seeing in eagles and other biota is likely to climb each year.”

He wasn’t alone.

In March 1999, a 3M worker emailed several colleagues and 3M’s general counsel, Thomas J. DiPasquale, questioning why three months had passed since a committee had reviewed Purdy’s hypothesis on food chain contamination.

DiPasquale wasn’t in a hurry, though.

“I’m not sure there is a need to support or refute the hypothesis within any particular time frame,” he replied.

Purdy, who was on the email chain, retorted: “Plan! That is the same stalling technique you have been using for the last year.”

“There is a high probability that PFOS is killing marine mammals and you want another plan when we could have had data to support the risk assessment long ago,” Purdy wrote. “You were given a plan in 1983. Again in the early 90s. And you authorized no testing.”

This undated photograph showing open burning of drums in a landfill was an exhibit in the state lawsuit against 3M. Courtesy state of Minnesota.

Meanwhile, his preliminary research indicated adult eagles had 50 times as much PFOS in their plasma as the eaglets.

“For 20 years the division has been stalling the collection of data needed for evaluating the environmental impact of fluorochemicals,” Purdy wrote. “PFOS is the most onerous pollutant since PCB and you want to avoid collecting data that indicates that it is probably worse. I am outraged.”

Two days later, Purdy resigned, and forwarded his resignation letter to the EPA.

“I have continually met roadblocks, delays, and indecision. For weeks on end I have received assurances that my samples would be analyzed soon — never to see results. There are always excuses and little is accomplished,” he wrote.

3M continued to make the chemicals after Purdy warned they were spreading through the food chain and harming sea mammals.

“This chemical is more stable than many rocks,” he wrote. “And the chemicals the company is considering for replacement are just as stable and biologically available. The risk assessment I performed was simple, and not worst case.”

3M told the people working on the fluorochemical project not to write down their thoughts or have email discussions because of how their speculation could be viewed in potential litigation, Purdy alleged.

“For me it is unethical to be concerned with markets, legal defensibility and image over environmental safety,” he wrote.

Purdy did not respond to a request for comment, but his view of 3M’s behavior seemed to soften over time. In an interview with MPR from his Wisconsin farm in 2005, he spoke “with pride” about the company’s investment in science and chemicals. 

“3M is like somebody who ran the stop sign, got through the stop sign, ‘Oh my God,’ and stopped,” he was quoted saying.

3M begins working to ‘command the science’

With the EPA on notice, the agency pressured 3M to stop manufacturing the compound used in Scotchgard (PFOS) in the U.S. in 2000. Six years later, the EPA fined the company for not turning over hundreds of reports on the chemicals’ toxicity.

The EPA said 3M’s own data indicated its chemicals didn’t break down and could pose a long-term threat to human health and the environment.

Still, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency didn’t begin investigating the chemicals for two years, according to MPR, which reported that all the agency had on file for 3M’s Cottage Grove plant in 2001 was a press clipping headlined “Scotchgard sticks in the environment.”

Once 3M had finally alerted regulators, the company worked on a communications plan

The first goal: “Protect and enhance 3M’s reputation.”

Indeed, its primary concern seemed to be controlling the narrative around the science. The plan included a list of “high-priority” candidates to be spokespersons for the company, including Michigan State University professor John Giesy, a 3M advisor on environmental studies. 3M employee Dale Bacon said he would gauge Giesy’s interest.

3M wanted to get scientific papers on their chemicals published before others, according to internal emails.

A 2003 internal memo showed 3M looking to fund outside research using 3M “grant” money, particularly with people who would be influential in risk assessment and “other science policy matters.”

Among their action items: Develop a list of 3M and “industry-preferred” nominees for science advisory panels.

Giesy was the ideal candidate. He was editor of more than half the academic journals about PFAS and considered an independent expert. 

3M went on to pay Giesy to review and share studies with 3M before they were published, Minnesota alleged in its lawsuit against 3M.

It began when Giesy emailed 3M officials in August 2000 informing the company he had a draft manuscript ready and wanted to submit it to Science before others beat him to it.

“I think it is important to publish our work before theirs,” Giesy wrote. “Otherwise, it looks like we (ie 3M) was pressured into the investigations they have done and subsequent release of the data.”

A 3M official warned his colleagues that publishing the paper “could set off a chain reaction of speculation that could reopen the issue with the media and move it back to a health story; something up-to-now we have avoided.”

Instead, the 3M official wrote that the company should keep “our” scientific publications “in the right order as we had already agreed,” noting he presumed Giesy’s work was done under contract with 3M and was only publishable “if and when we agree.”

The official added, however: “We also can’t dilly dally around either. It will take a great deal of sensitivity and people skills to bring Dr. Giesy around to our thinking on this and to be sure he doesn’t misinterpret our position as trying to hide the winnie. We just want the winnie in the bun, complete with mustard and ketchup.”

3M went on to develop a campaign to “command the science” and create “defensive barriers to litigation,” the state alleged in its lawsuit, by selectively funding outside research and editing scientific papers before they were published.

“The company, unfortunately, engaged in a campaign to hide its own studies and to, in fact, shape the science through the funding of these other studies,” Swanson told Congress.

Giesy explained how it worked in a March 2008 email to 3M Laboratory Manager William Reagen: He edited a lot of PFAS papers for scientific journals, but in his 3M billings, he listed the work as “literature searches” on timesheets “so that there was no paper trail to 3M.”

“Some journals will allow this, but others, for conflict of interest issues, will not allow an industry to review a paper about one of their products,” he wrote. “That is where I came in for Dale (Bacon, the 3M employee).”

Giesy said in a later email “Dale (Bacon) had me doing things to keep a finger on the pulse of things going on around the world, especially to try to keep bad papers out of the literature.”

The state lawsuit alleged 3M paid Giesy at least $2 million, and that he had a net worth of about $20 million despite working at public universities most of his career.

3M records show he was first paid by the company in 1993. Beginning in 1998, Entrix, Inc. — Giesy’s environmental consulting company — was paid nearly $1.7 million for his work through 2009, at a rate of $275 an hour, according to one billing.

By 2008, the arrangement appeared to be ending. In an email, Giesy offered some closing words: 

“My personal advise (sic) is that you want to keep ‘bad’ papers out of the literature, otherwise in litigation situations they can be a large obstacle to refute,” he wrote. “Judges seem to be of the opinion that if information is in the peer-reviewed, open literature, it is accurate.”

Giesy — who now works at the University of Saskatchewan — did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but in the past he has denied any wrongdoing. He said he was only trying to keep mistakes out of the literature — and accused Swanson of trying to smear his reputation because he refused to be an expert for the state.

“The documents speak for themselves,” Swanson said in an interview.

Goal: ‘Sell PFCs as long and as broadly as we can’

For more than a quarter century, 3M has known its fluorochemicals could have devastating consequences for the company’s long-term financial health. 

A 1995 internal strategic planning document said “obstacle No. 1” to 3M’s major vision in its chemical business was “the persistence of fluorochemicals,” and “environmental, health, safety and regulatory issues and trends that threaten to limit our business.”

Among the “key actions” listed: “Continue to maintain regulatory approval to sell PFCs as long and as broadly as we can.”

It’s easy to understand why they were so committed to the chemicals, despite the massive risks: $500 million per year in revenue, year after year after year. 

“Unfortunately, it succeeded for more than 50 years,” Swanson told Congress. “And now states and local governments around the nation are grappling with the consequences.”

To this day, 3M still manufactures perfluorochemicals in Cottage Grove, as well as Cordova, Ill., Decatur, Ala., Zwijndrecht, Belgium, and Gendorf, Germany.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.