3M to stop making ‘forever chemicals’

By: - December 20, 2022 10:27 am

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

3M announced Tuesday that it will stop manufacturing a group of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) and work to stop using the chemicals in its products by the end of 2025. 

The company nets about $1.3 billion annually from the chemical sales — a fraction of its overall revenue, at 3.7%.

The Maplewood company has made the so-called “forever chemicals” — called that because they accumulate in the human body and environment — in Minnesota since the 1950s. 

They’ve been used to make coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water such as Scotchgard stain repellent, Teflon cookware, fast food wrapping and fire retardants.

While 3M has stopped making some types of PFAS, it still makes others in its Cottage Grove plant as well as Cordova, Ill., Decatur, Ala., Zwijndrecht, Belgium, and Gendorf, Germany. 

Making the chemicals produced millions of gallons of wet industrial waste in Minnesota, which 3M dumped in unlined landfills, polluting groundwater in the East Metro. The company’s chemical history was the subject of a two-part Reformer special report last week. 

3M said in a press release that its decision was based on careful consideration of “the evolving external landscape, including multiple factors such as accelerating regulatory trends focused on reducing or eliminating the presence of PFAS in the environment and changing stakeholder expectations.”

“This is a moment that demands the kind of innovation 3M is known for,” 3M chief executive officer Mike Roman said in the release. “While PFAS can be safely made and used, we also see an opportunity to lead in a rapidly evolving external regulatory and business landscape to make the greatest impact for those we serve.”

Attorney Robert Bilott won a landmark 2004 settlement with DuPont over that company’s use of 3M chemicals, which polluted farmland near its Teflon plant in West Virginia. He said in a statement that the company’s decision to stop “spewing” the chemicals into the world is decades overdue. 

And, he said, it “has come only after the truth of what 3M has long known about the harm that these toxins pose was revealed to the world through litigation by the innocent victims of this massive cover-up.”

The company said it will exit all PFAS manufacturing by the end of 2025 and stop manufacturing all fluoropolymers, fluorinated fluids, and PFAS-based additive products. 3M said it will fulfill current contractual obligations during the transition.

The company will also work to discontinue the use of PFAS across its product portfolio by the end of 2025, saying it has already reduced its use over the past three years.

“With these two actions, 3M is committing to innovate toward a world less dependent upon PFAS,” the company said.

The company continued to stand by its contention that its products are “safe for their intended uses” even though some of the chemicals they’ve stopped making have been linked to low fertility, birth defects, immune system suppression, thyroid disease and cancer.

Internal 3M documents obtained through lawsuits show the company has known about the chemicals’ dangers for decades, but ignored, delayed, minimized and obscured research that raised red flags about the chemicals, stifling scientific research. 

In the 1950s, 3M scientists discovered the chemicals were accumulating in the bodies of humans and animals. By the early 1960s, 3M knew the chemicals didn’t degrade in the environment. And by the 1970s, the company knew its chemicals were widely present in the blood of most Americans.

Now the chemicals can be found in the blood of nearly all people on the planet, and in animals from polar bears to eaglets. 

3M said it will continue to remediate PFAS and defend itself in court or through negotiated resolutions. The company faces numerous lawsuits over chemicals the EPA pressured it to stop making in the early 2000s — including a lawsuit filed by Minnesota which it settled for $850 million. A recent Bloomberg analysis estimated 3M liabilities could reach $30 billion for just two mass tort cases over defective earplugs and firefighting foam containing chemicals that have been linked to health problems.

What remains to be seen, Bilott said, is whether the company will ever accept responsibility and pay to clean up the “unprecedented global contamination” including contamination of drinking water supplies, soil, wildlife and people.

“The taxpayers and innocent victims of this contamination should not be paying to clean up the mess 3M caused,” Bilott said. “Instead of fighting the federal, state and international regulators who are trying to protect the public from this harm and continuing to deny the science linking these chemicals with disease, 3M should be working to find ways to fully support and fund studies and monitoring of those exposed.”

Bilott helped lead a lawsuit against 3M involving PFAS in 2005 in Minnesota and helped to uncover much of the internal information that was released to the public through Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson’s later lawsuit against 3M and continues to be revealed through multidistrict litigation over firefighting foam. Bilott is advisory counsel to the plaintiffs in that case.

Swanson said 3M’s decision was long overdue, and now the company needs to decide how it will resolve problems it created worldwide.

“For decades, 3M has had knowledge about the health impacts and medical impacts from these chemicals, yet at each juncture they chose to continue to continue to make money making them,” she said. “Now 3M has to decide what to do to resolve those situations for those many, many communities around the world.”

The Cottage Grove plant produces chemicals used in Post-it notes, Scotch Magic tape, catalytic converters, reflective road signs and license plates, golf club finishes and TV, laptop and cell phone screens.

The chemicals are also used in medical technologies, semiconductors, batteries, phones, automobiles and airplanes. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.

MORE FROM AUTHOR