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Internal documents show 3M hid PFAS dangers for decades

Published: May 14, 2019
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A 3M environmental specialist, in a scathing resignation letter, accused company officials of being "unethical" and more "concerned with markets, legal defensibility and image over environmental safety" when it came to PFAS, the emerging contaminant causing a potential crisis throughout Michigan and the country.

PFOS, one of 3M's chief PFAS products, "is the most insidious pollutant since PCB," Richard Purdy stated in his March 28, 1999, resignation letter, referring to a compound used in 3M's ScotchGard stain-protection product line, among other uses.

"It is probably more damaging than PCB because it does not degrade, whereas PCB does; it is more toxic to wildlife," he stated, adding that PFOS's end point in the environment appeared to be plants and animals, not soil and sediment like PCB.

"I have worked within the system to learn more about this chemical and to make the company aware of the dangers associated with its continued use," Purdy stated in the letter, saying he was resigning effective April 6, 1999. "But 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."

Purdy's explosive resignation letter is just one of a large cache of internal 3M memos and documents obtained by the Free Press through public records law from the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office. Then-Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson obtained the internal documents from the Minnesota-based company after suing 3M in 2010 over its environmental contamination in the state. The company settled the suit last year for $850 million.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — PFAS — is the biggest emerging contaminant problem in Michigan. The nonstick compounds were used for decades, from the 1950s to the 2000s, in aqueous firefighting foam, industrial processes and a host of popular consumer products: Teflon nonstick pots and pans, ScotchGard stain protectants on carpets and upholstery; Gore-Tex water-resistant shoes and clothing, and more. 

But the same qualities that made PFAS compounds so useful also makes them almost indestructible in the environment, giving them the ominous nickname "the forever chemicals." 

Two of the most common and most studied PFAS compounds, known as PFOS and PFOA, have been linked to cancer; conditions affecting the liver, thyroid and pancreas; ulcerative colitis; hormone and immune system interference; high cholesterol; pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, and negative effects on growth, learning and behavior in infants and children.

PFAS can now be found in the blood of nearly 99% of Americans. It has even been found in polar bears in the Arctic Circle, as the chemicals have worked their way up the food chain from fish and seals.

Some 46 sites in Michigan are known to have groundwater with PFAS levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's lifetime health advisory guideline of 70 parts per trillion, a level above which a person consuming the water for a lifetime might expect health problems. And state officials have identified more than 11,000 sites in Michigan where PFAS was used and contamination may be an issue.

And it's not just the Great Lakes State's problem. In a new study, citing updated federal government data, the Washington-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group identified 610 sites in 43 U.S. states or territories known contaminated with PFAS, including drinking water systems serving 19 million people. 

The documents obtained from the Minnesota Attorney General's office outline 3M's own research showing its PFAS compounds were not breaking down in the environment, were having negative health effects in laboratory rats and other animals — and that the blood of employees, and the public, had become contaminated with the compounds.

As these revelations occurred within the company, 3M continued to sell PFAS compounds for use in products worldwide: in ScotchGard stain protection, Teflon coating on cookware and other products, Gore-Tex water resistant shoes and clothing, sandwich wrapping paper and microwave popcorn bags, aqueous firefighting foam and other industrial uses.

For generations, 3M kept much of what it knew to itself, not informing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — or the public — until the late 1990s, when the EPA began taking notice of the rising research outside of 3M showing PFAS's persistence in the environment. The company in 2000 announced an agreement with the EPA to voluntarily phase out its use of PFOS by 2003. It also halted its manufacture of another popular PFAS compound, PFOA, in 2000, but other manufacturers, including DuPont in its Teflon products, continued utilizing PFOA until a subsequent agreement with the EPA to phase out its use by 2015.


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