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Manufacturing giant 3M says it will stop making PFAS “Forever Chemicals” by 2026

Manufacturing giant 3M says it will stop making PFAS “Forever Chemicals” by 2026

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The image shows 3M's headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota.  The state sued the company for water pollution in 2010 and won an $850 million settlement in 2018 -- just one of many lawsuits 3M has faced over PFAS.

Mega-manufacturer 3M, which makes everything from adhesive tapes to medical masks to electronic components, said in a press release issued Monday that it will phase out all production of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) by the end of 2025. The announcement follows multiple lawsuits and pollution investigations related to the company’s assets that have cost $3M billion and are counting.

In addition to promising to “stop all PFAS manufacturing by the end of 2025,” 3M also said it is “working to phase out the use of PFAS across our entire product portfolio” during the same timeframe. In other words, the company has definitely said it will stop manufacturing the chemicals and less definitely said it will seek to phase out the use of PFAS compounds in its products. Note that this theoretically leaves room for 3M to source PFAS from elsewhere and continue to use them in the many items manufactured.

The company did not directly respond to most of Gizmodo’s questions about the scope and details of its PFAS moratorium. However, in an email, 3M spokeswoman Carolyn LaViolette wrote: “We have already reduced our use of PFAS over the past three years through continued research and development and will continue to develop new solutions for customers.”

LaViolette declined to answer Gizmodo’s questions about what compounds 3M could use to replace PFAS. More than 20 years ago, the company phased out a specific subset of PFAS, known as PFOS, replacing these chemicals with the shorter-chain molecules currently in use. Eventually, research determined that these smaller replacement chemicals were no less dangerous (and possibly worse) than their predecessors.

Aside from potential loopholes and other risks, 3M’s cessation of manufacturing PFAS is still a big deal. Other corporate giants that have used PFAS in the past, such as some fast food chains and clothing manufacturers, have also recently committed to phase out the use of these chemicals. But 3M doesn’t just use PFAS; it does the stuff.

The company was one of the first to develop and use PFAS chemicals in the 1950s. Since then, the extremely durable compounds have been widely used in non-stick coatings, flame retardants, food packaging, cosmetics, furniture and more for their water, oil and grease repellent properties. Nevertheless, PFAS pose a threat to the environment and human health.

PFAS are commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” because of their extreme stability over time. They don’t break down naturally in the environment or in our bodies – instead, they accumulate and cause a mountain of problems. Scientific studies have found links between PFAS and several types of cancer, immune deficiency, high cholesterol, liver disease, delayed infant development, birth defects and pregnancy complications. And it’s not just humans who get sick when PFAS are around. Research has shown that other animals – from alligators to livestock – experience similar health effects from the chemicals.

Unfortunately, thanks to more than 70 years of industrial production, avoiding the compounds is almost impossible. PFAS pollution is basically everywhere and there is still no reliable way to remove it from our water and air.

All of this scientific revelations about the harmfulness of PFAS and the difficulties in eliminating them has led to increased regulatory pressure, lawsuits and scrutiny of the companies that make and use the chemicals, including 3M. Several European countries are considering a total PFAS ban. In the US, earlier this year, the EPA issued an updated health advisory for PFAS, effectively stating that there is no safe level of the chemical in drinking water. In November, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered 3M to test and clean the water near its Cordova, Illinois, factory.

In a notable 2010 lawsuit against 3M, the Minnesota Attorney General sued the company for pollution related to its facilities throughout the state where 3M is headquartered. Many people in communities near 3M factories, like Oakdale, believe that contamination of their water supply has contributed to a local increase in cancer and other health problems for local residents. The company has publicly denied any guilt, and academic reviews of Oakdale have come to differing conclusions as to whether or not the city’s residents suffer from statistically significantly elevated rates of cancer. However, in 2018, 3M reached an $850 million settlement with Minnesota.

The company faces thousands of lawsuits related to PFAS. Ongoing cases include a lawsuit by California AG and a consolidated multi-county case over firefighting foam that could leave the company liable for more than $30 billion in damages, according to a report by Bloomberg Law. Compare that to the $1.3 billion to $2.3 billion the company’s own analysis says clipping PFAS could cost it.

Ultimately, leaving chemicals in the past forever is nothing more than wise financial tactics for 3M. “Our decision is based on an assessment of the evolving external landscape, including regulatory changes and interest in the market for alternatives to PFAS,” LaViolette wrote to Gizmodo.

Nonetheless, the announcement is a step towards a safer and healthier world, showing that the persistent efforts of scientists, environmental activists and legal experts have made a real difference. PFAS is no longer profitable.

3M says it will continue manufacturing PFAS for now as the company “intends to meet ongoing contractual obligations during the transition period.” But in three years, a chapter of the “Forever” saga could finally end.

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