New York, California, New Jersey, And Alabama Move To Ban ‘Forever Chemicals’ In Firefighting Foam
New York Moves To Ban ‘Forever Chemicals’ In Firefighting Foam. New York, California, New Jersey, And Alabama Move To Ban ‘Forever Chemicals’ In Firefighting Foam
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) Dec. 23 gave his conditional approval to the legislation (A.445/S.439), which phases out the use of fluorinated aqueous film-forming foam for fire suppression and prevention. The foam contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” for their persistence in the environment.
In a memorandum filed with his approval, Cuomo said that legislators had agreed to amendments to give the state discretion to allow exceptions to the ban for uses where no effective alternative firefighting agent is available.
Exposure to PFAS is linked to certain cancers, hormone disruptions, and other medical conditions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Seepage of the foam into groundwater near military and civilian airfields in New York has been tied to findings of high blood levels of the chemicals in people, bill sponsors said.
“Phasing out PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam will eliminate a major source of water pollution in New York State, resulting in cleaner and healthier drinking water for all residents,” Rob Hayes, clean water associate for Environmental Advocates of New York, said in a statement welcoming Cuomo’s approval.
The broad ban will take effect in two years, with a ban on their use in training exercises kicking in immediately.
Washington, in 2018, became the first state to ban PFAS in firefighting foams, and New Hampshire passed a broad ban in September. Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Virginia passed bans on training use of the foams earlier this year, and Georgia enacted a ban limited to “testing purposes,” according to the advocacy group Safer States.
Forever Litigated ‘Forever Chemicals’: A Guide to PFAS in Courts
Court dockets are ballooning with litigation over PFAS, a vexing family of chemicals used in many consumer and industrial products.
Some types of the man-made per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are called “forever chemicals,” a shorthand for their ability to build up and stick around indefinitely in people and the environment.
Health risks of some types of PFAS have become clearer in recent years, prompting a rush to the courtroom by people exposed to the chemicals, utilities dealing with contamination, and shareholders facing the financial risks. Lawyers have compared the legal onslaught to litigation over asbestos, tobacco, and lead paint.
Here’s a rundown of key cases.
Hundreds of high-stakes PFAS cases are bundled together in multidistrict litigation in Ohio and South Carolina. MDLs are federal court proceedings that roll numerous individual cases into a single docket, allowing a presiding judge to efficiently handle pre-trial motions and other procedural issues.
A judge in South Carolina is handling hundreds of lawsuits against 3M Co., E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., and other manufacturers over PFAS present in firefighting foam used across the country. The fast-growing docket is in its early stages.
A judge in Ohio, meanwhile, is fielding dozens of lawsuits involving PFAS water contamination near a manufacturing site on the Ohio River. Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP attorney Rob Bilott, who brought PFAS concerns to light in a related case 20 years ago, is involved in the Ohio MDL.
Class Actions Over Contamination
Other PFAS cases are proceeding as proposed class actions, in which a set of named plaintiffs aim to represent a broader group of people who have experienced the same alleged harms. A judge must approve the class status.
Residents of communities in Vermont, Michigan, North Carolina, and New York have filed class actions targeting companies with local manufacturing sites that made PFAS chemicals or used them in their operations, including 3M, DuPont, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., and shoemaker Wolverine World Wide Inc.
In another proposed class action, former Ohio firefighter Kevin Hardwick is pushing the court the recognize a nationwide class of plaintiffs exposed to PFAS and order major manufacturers to fund a scientific panel to study health impacts.
Class Actions Over Securities
Shareholders have filed several cases accusing chemical companies of misleading investors on the extent of PFAS liabilities. The litigants say company executives knew about the financial risks for decades, but only recently disclosed them.
The cases, which allege violations of securities laws, target 3M and DuPont spinoff The Chemours Co.
Businesses are also battling one another over PFAS. The most high-profile fight is between DuPont and Chemours. DuPont spun off its performance chemicals business into Chemours in 2015. The young company says DuPont left it holding the bag for PFAS liability.
Other corporate legal skirmishes are playing out between Valero Energy Corp. and chemical manufacturers for alleged PFAS contamination at refineries in Oklahoma and California.
Many states have been busy taking legal action to address PFAS.
New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, New Jersey, and Ohio have all filed lawsuits over the past two years targeting chemical companies. Some of the cases address alleged contamination linked to firefighting foam and have been folded into the multidistrict litigation in South Carolina.
New Mexico, meanwhile, is going after the federal government over fouled water at two Air Force bases in the state.
Other cases also center on military operations. Pennsylvania residents are suing the Navy over PFAS in groundwater near two naval sites, and the Air Force is facing litigation over contamination claims from a water utility in Colorado and a farmer in New Mexico.
Other lawsuits against chemical manufacturers involve military sites, and similar litigation is expected to pile up.
Water utilities that have found PFAS in their supplies have lined up in court to get 3M, DuPont, and other companies to take responsibility.
Lawsuits are pending from utilities in New York, California, New Jersey, and Alabama.
In New Hampshire, meanwhile, the Plymouth Village Water & Sewer District has teamed up with 3M to sue the state over stricter limits on PFAS in drinking water.
Biden Administration Seeks To Accelerate Cleanup Of Toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’
Concerns mount over health toll of substances used to make everything from cellphones to medical devices.
The Biden administration said it is moving forward on regulations to limit the spread of several toxic chemicals that public-health advocates say are harmful to humans and should become the target of a widespread cleanup effort.
White House officials said Monday that they are working on a proposal to designate some chemicals classified as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, as hazardous substances under 1980 federal law, a status that could make manufacturers and other distributors of the chemicals liable for cleaning up contaminated sites. PFAS are commonly called “forever chemicals” because they take so long to break down.
The planned hazardous designation for some PFAS chemicals was outlined in a series of proposals that the Biden administration says it is taking to accelerate the cleanup of the toxic chemicals, monitor the country’s drinking water supply and help contaminated communities under a three-year road map.
The toxic family of chemicals has made its way into drinking water and the food supply through a range of sources, including industrial operations, food packaging and firefighting foam. Some chemical manufacturers have agreed to stop using some PFAS chemicals in fast-food wrappers and other packaging.
Public-health groups and environmentalists said they are alarmed by the chemicals for the serious health problems they can cause and their resistance to biodegrading in the environment. The chemicals have been linked to several types of cancer and health problems such as high cholesterol.
The efforts “will help prevent PFAS from being released into the air, drinking systems and food supply, and the actions will expand cleanup efforts to remediate the impacts of these harmful pollutants,” the White House said.
Specifically, EPA officials have restarted the process of designating two most-researched types of PFAS, PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous, which could jump-start the process. They didn’t say when that designation would become final.
EPA officials said they would also propose new regulations next year that would require manufacturers to disclose more information about releases of PFAS chemicals that are allowed in commercial use.
Previous efforts to designate the chemicals as hazardous were met with resistance from the American Chemistry Council, a Washington-based trade association that represents the industry.
In July, after lawmakers in the House of Representatives voted to force EPA officials to make that designation in a bipartisan bill, American Chemistry Council leaders released a statement warning that the designation could limit access to critical products for consumers and businesses, potentially jeopardizing other Biden administration priorities such as greenhouse-gas reduction and semiconductor supply-chain stability. It repeated that concern on Monday.
“According to EPA, approximately 600 PFAS substances are manufactured or in use today, each with its own unique properties and uses, from cellphones to solar panels, for which alternatives are not always available,” the group said in response to the Biden administration’s three-year strategy.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan led a cleanup of widespread PFAS contamination into the Cape Fear River in his home state of North Carolina. Shortly after taking his post, he formed a group to make recommendations on ways to handle the toxic chemicals.
“When EPA becomes aware of a situation where PFAS poses a serious threat to the health of a community, we will not hesitate to take swift action, strong enforcement to address the threat and hold polluters accountable,” he said at a press conference on Monday.
The Biden administration has tasked other agencies with roles in investigating and limiting the spread of the chemicals, including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration and the Defense Department.
White House officials met with federal agency leaders on Monday to discuss policy issues on the chemicals under a new committee led by White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Brenda Mallory.
The Biden administration plans to use existing powers to make regulations and take enforcement approaches to address the chemicals’ contamination.
White House officials are also pressuring Congress to pass legislation to address the chemical contamination, including a $10 billion grant program in the infrastructure bill. Another proposal sets aside money for drinking-water monitoring.
3M’s ‘Forever Chemicals’ Crisis Has Come To Europe
The fight over a tunnel project in Antwerp has revealed extraordinary levels of toxins in the water, soil, and people near the company’s factory. This time there could be criminal charges.
The soil around Wendy D’Hollander’s Belgian farmhouse is so saturated with the chemical PFOS, produced in Antwerp by 3M Co., that she’s in what’s called the red zone.
Belgian officials have ordered 3M to draw up a plan by July 1 to scrape off as much as 5 feet of soil on D’Hollander’s 2.5 acres. More than 4,500 other families face a similar fate, with varying depths of soil to be carted away to a still undetermined location.
D’Hollander knew something was wrong a decade ago. She was working toward a Ph.D. in biology and living with her parents and daughter in the farmhouse. The setting, in the suburb of Zwijndrecht, is bucolic and lovely, save for the 3M plant across a highway.
During her research, she discovered that eggs from birds close to the plant had some of the highest concentrations ever reported of PFOS, an ingredient in fabric coatings and firefighting foams.
Then she tested herself. PFOS—perfluorooctanesulfonic acid—is referred to as a forever chemical, because it accumulates in soil, rivers, and drinking water and is almost impossible to get rid of. She had about 300 micrograms of it per liter in her blood, more than 60 times the level recommended as safe today by the European Union.
At the time, she was pregnant with her second child. She immediately tried to limit her exposure by avoiding locally produced eggs—she thought that might be the key contamination route, because the chemical binds to proteins. In 2012 she wrote to the mayor of Zwijndrecht, warning him that local eggs posed a serious problem. She never got a response.
Life steamed ahead. D’Hollander is now 40 and has three children. Her family has lived on that plot of land since the late 1800s, so she never seriously contemplated moving. Knowledge of the health risks associated with forever chemicals was still evolving, and she didn’t know the extent of the contamination. “I thought it was just those eggs really near the factory,” she says.
Last year she found out her 65-year-old mother had 1,100 micrograms of PFOS per liter of blood—a concentration more typically found in industrial wastewater. Her 68-year-old father had about 800. Her 19-year-old daughter tested at 300.
D’Hollander’s own level had come down to about 100, which she attributes to not eating eggs and to breastfeeding, a theory backed up by studies showing mothers pass on high amounts of the chemical through their milk.
She and her mother both have malfunctioning thyroids, a condition now associated with PFOS, and doctors have told them that at some point the drugs they take for the condition will stop working. Other health problems associated with high PFOS levels include high cholesterol, diabetes, hormone and immune disorders, and even diminished vaccine efficacy.
“I feel a bit guilty now that I didn’t put more pressure on authorities to do something 10 years ago,” says D’Hollander. Now she waits for 3M to begin undoing the damage—not to her family, because that’s done, but to the land.
“I’m not sure how they will deal with some of our trees which are more than 100 years old,” she says. “And I’m not sure how they will compensate us if we are living in a mud pit.”
3M is at the center of a major political scandal in Belgium, where the company produced PFOS from 1976 to 2002. PFOS is one of thousands of types of PFAS—perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. All the PFAS chemicals produced by 3M and other companies are considered forever chemicals.
It’s possible the contamination wouldn’t have come to light if the government hadn’t pushed ahead with a €4.5 billion ($4.8 billion) project to build a network of roads, tunnels, and parks to finish a ring road around Antwerp.
To complete the construction, the state-owned highway company, Lantis, needs to dig up almost 14 million cubic meters (494.4 million cubic feet) of soil, roughly enough to fill the Great Pyramid of Giza five times over.
The project, known locally as the Oosterweel, is an attempt to unclog the snarl of trucks around the Port of Antwerp in one of the most densely populated corners of Europe. It’s been 20 years in the making, dogged all along the way by opposition.
The most challenging part: a tunnel that will run under the Scheldt River and pop out close to 3M on the left bank. This section of Antwerp is home to Europe’s largest cluster of chemical factories. If there were ever a place not to dig a tunnel, it would be here.
The contamination was exposed last year in the battle over what to do with all that dirt. The result has been a criminal probe into the company, a parliamentary commission that’s hauled ministers in for questioning, and a public outcry over the potential health risks to tens of thousands of local residents.
At the end of October, the government of the Flanders region ordered 3M to shut down production of almost all PFAS chemicals—the first time the company had been forced by a government to stop making PFAS.
Last year details of a secret deal came out. In 2018, 3M struck a confidential agreement allowing the most toxic soil from the Oosterweel project to be dumped on its site, with a plan to create a toxic dirt wall of mind-boggling proportions: almost a mile long, 21 feet high, and at least 82 feet wide.
“The whole thing is crazy,” says Thomas Goorden, an activist who played a key role in revealing 3M’s contamination. “Essentially the government decided to suppress the whole PFOS story here in order to build a tunnel.”
With Goorden’s help, citizens groups and nongovernmental organizations mounted legal challenges that have halted the construction of the tunnel and the toxic wall of dirt, at least for now.
The company has denied that PFOS and other PFAS chemicals cause harm to human health at the levels detected in the environment, arguing that studies have produced conflicting results. Nevertheless, 3M’s costs are spiraling.
In March it announced it would spend an additional €150 million to clean up soil in the red zone where D’Hollander lives and a surrounding area known as the orange zone, bringing the total amount for PFAS remediation measures in Belgium to €275 million, including a new water treatment system.
Rebecca Teeters, 3M’s senior vice president for PFAS stewardship, says the costs are likely to grow. “We’re going to take it back to the state that it was before we had to come in,” she says.
“The criminal case makes this more serious for 3M than what’s happened in the US”
3M has been having a PFAS reckoning. It paid $850 million in 2018 to settle, without admitting wrongdoing, a case in its home state of Minnesota over forever chemicals, and it’s contending with a cascade of lawsuits elsewhere.
What’s happening in Belgium may be the most significant threat, because the company is facing criminal charges of illegally dumping waste. It could end up paying more than $1 billion for compensation and cleanup, says Isabelle Larmuseau, a prominent environmental lawyer based in Ghent, Belgium, who’s not representing anyone in the legal cases under way.
“The criminal case makes this more serious for 3M than what’s happened in the US,” she says. “If convicted, 3M will not only have to face sky-high costs of compensating people and cleaning up the contamination, but prison sentences can be handed out.”
Through a spokesman, 3M denied any criminal behavior. “3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS and will continue to vigorously defend its record,” the spokesman said.
3M released PFOS into the air in Belgium for at least 20 years. For even longer, it allowed contaminated groundwater to seep into the Scheldt, a 350-kilometer (217-mile) river that starts in France and runs through Belgium and the Netherlands into the North Sea.
Documents disclosed in lawsuits in the US showed that 3M knew for decades about the dangers of exposure to PFAS chemicals but didn’t inform the public. During the 1970s and ’80s, it conducted studies on its US workers that showed PFAS building up in the bloodstream.
In 1977 the company determined PFOS was “more toxic than anticipated” in a study of rats and monkeys; in 1978 a monkey study had to be stopped after all the animals died within the first few days because the PFOS doses were too high.
In 1980, minutes from an internal 3M meeting said workers at the factory in Antwerp were told the chemicals had been found in human blood, but the company decided not to tell the Belgian government.
In 2000 the company announced it would voluntarily phase out PFOS and another forever chemical, PFOA, globally in what it called a “precautionary measure.” But it maintained that the chemicals were safe and worked on developing new-generation PFAS chemicals that could be used for the same products, including Scotchgard, one of its preeminent brands.
A year later, 3M studied the groundwater of its Antwerp factory and found PFOS levels that were off the charts. One sample showed 257,000 micrograms per liter, according to a 3M-commissioned study submitted to the Flemish waste management agency. For context, Minnesota’s current safe limit is 0.015 micrograms per liter.
“I was looking at the numbers and thinking to myself, ‘Did they misplace a decimal point?’”
Goorden, the activist, saw the 3M study in January 2021. “I was looking at the numbers and thinking to myself, ‘Did they misplace a decimal point? There’s a thousand times too much here,’ ” he recalls. “We’re talking about incredible concentrations, thousands of times over the norms.”
After 3M stopped producing PFOS in Belgium in 2002, it replaced the chemical with equivalents it said were safer. (Many scientists disagree.) 3M continued to study the extent of the contamination. In 2006 the company hired a consulting firm called Arcadis NV, which found PFOS levels in the groundwater of as much as 82,800 micrograms per liter.
A 655-page report by Arcadis, seen by Bloomberg Businessweek, stated that the contamination had spread via groundwater and possibly by air to a neighboring nature reserve and a nearby creek. In 2008, Arcadis drew up a groundwater remediation plan, but the waste management agency decided no soil sanitation was needed. By 2015 the agency said no additional remediation was required.
That would turn out to be a terrible mistake. In 2016, Lantis, the company in charge of the ring road project, tested the soil. In one area near 3M’s factory, it measured 1,232 micrograms of PFOS per kilogram of dry soil.
Flanders has never had laws on its books limiting PFAS, but officials knew that one of the norms being used in the neighboring Netherlands was 8 micrograms per kilo of dry soil, according to minutes from a 2016 meeting on the project.
Neither 3M nor Lantis warned the public about the pollution in the area, even as citizens groups battled over how to complete Antwerp’s ring road. Environmentalists rejected a proposed viaduct connection to the tunnel because, they said, it would lead to deforestation.
The government reached an agreement with the activists in 2017 that still included the tunnel plan. Officials didn’t mention anything about digging up heavily contaminated soil.
After more than a decade of fighting, Flemish officials were eager to go ahead with the Oosterweel. They needed 3M’s help. In November 2018, Lantis and 3M signed their secret pact allowing the most dangerous of the toxic dirt (with 70 to 1,000 micrograms of PFOS per kilo) to be dumped on 3M’s site.
Lantis argued Flemish regulations allowed it to move the soil without treating it as toxic waste as long as it served a function, in this case a security wall. Lantis estimated it would cost €63 million to move all that soil. 3M’s cost would be €75,000.
“We were astonished,” Hannes Anaf, chairman of the parliamentary committee investigating the PFOS scandal, says of the 2018 agreement. “If you look at what it’s going to cost to resolve the pollution in the broad surroundings of the company, we’re talking billions.”
Environmental groups and residents won a legal challenge late last year that effectively canceled the approvals for transporting the contaminated soil to 3M’s site. Some had already been moved, however, and in March, Lantis came up with a strategy to cover that soil with gravel to prevent PFAS from being, it said, “carried along by the wind.”
Soil showing more than 47 micrograms of PFOS per kilo would be kept within the zone where it was excavated and covered with a layer of foil and clay.
The parliamentary committee investigating the scandal issued its report at the end of March and concluded that 3M is to blame for the historical PFAS contamination in the area. It accused the company of not communicating openly about the pollution, but it didn’t hold anyone in government accountable, despite ministers approving the project.
Environmental activists made a final move to halt construction of the Oosterweel, saying the work would make the contamination worse and allow 3M to escape its obligation to clean up the area.
In April they won again at the Council of State, Belgium’s top court, which suspended all movement of soil, saying that anything with more than 3 micrograms of PFOS per kilo still posed an unacceptable environmental risk.
What happens now is anyone’s guess. “It’s not the end of the tunnel,” says Annik Dirkx, a Lantis spokesperson. “We are looking at a solution.” Goorden disagrees: “They believe it can indeed still be built, but nobody has told us how they think they can do it legally.”
Teeters, the 3M executive, says she wasn’t involved in the 2018 deal and declined to comment on why it was kept secret. 3M’s focus now, she says, is dealing with the contaminated soil and sharing as much information as possible. “We’re really trying to change that perception of 3M that we’re withholding,” she says. “Our goal is to find a path forward.”
Discovery of the contamination can be traced to a retired pottery designer named Frank Van Houtte, who liked to walk in the nature reserve near his home south of Antwerp.
In 2017 he got wind of an elaborate plan by Antwerp province to chop down almost all the trees in the 135-acre reserve and cover much of the area with about 4 million cubic meters of soil from the Oosterweel. That would have created a mountain of soil nearly a hundred feet high.
This plan, too, involved foil, with the goal of containing what Lantis said was preexisting pollution in the reserve. “They explained it as if the whole thing would be packed like a piece of chocolate, that it would be safer because nothing can get in or out,” Van Houtte says.
The Province of Antwerp planned to move roughly 4 million cubic meters of soil from the tunnel-highway project to a nature reserve far south.
He recounts how authorities promised the plan would protect the ecosystem. “They said they would catch the salamanders in the pond and the bats from the trees to send them somewhere else before they cut the trees down,” he says. “But you cannot catch them all! It’s impossible!”
Van Houtte started asking for details on the soil Lantis was going to dump on the nature reserve. In 2020 he got reports from the Flemish waste agency showing about 40 contaminated areas where the Oosterweel would be built.
Needing help to go through the documents, he gave them to Goorden. The activist combed through them and wrote up a report that he handed to Antwerp’s daily De Standaard, which ran a story in April 2021 revealing the PFOS contamination around 3M.
Goorden also advised the municipality of Zwijndrecht to test the soil independently of the Flemish government. In June 2021 the city announced the results, showing that PFOS contamination within half a kilometer of the factory exceeded standards by as much as 26 times.
“That’s when we knew we had a major problem,” says Steven Vervaet, a local alderman. The municipality then filed a criminal complaint against 3M. He recalls asking company executives in January 2020 if it was risky to use groundwater for agriculture. “They actually told me there is no human risk and certainly not with concentrations found in the area,” he recalls.
“I wondered how I could ever sell this product again now that Zwijndrecht has become PFOS land, like it’s Chernobyl”
Alongside health anxieties, farmers in the area have lost business. Koen Doggen grows organic vegetables that he sells to consumers through a subscription service. He says tests last summer showed his soil had more than twice the level of PFOS at which the government says sanitization is required. “I considered quitting,” he says.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to work on contaminated soil. I breathe it in daily in the summer and wash it off my skin every evening. I wondered how I could ever sell this product again now that Zwijndrecht has become PFOS land, like it’s Chernobyl.”
Surprisingly, his vegetables had no detectable PFOS, though they had traces of other PFAS. Many customers stuck by him. Still, organic farming on chemically tainted soil is a hard sell, especially given that more information about the contamination has come out since the end of Doggen’s growing season last fall.
3M has earmarked €5 million to compensate farmers financially damaged by the contamination. In a deal the government negotiated for farmers, the company paid Doggen in May for losses in 2021 and an expected downturn in revenue this year. He declined to disclose how much he received.
Lantis now says the soil that will go to the nature reserve south of Antwerp will come only from the right bank of the Scheldt and will not be contaminated with more than 3 micrograms of PFOS per kilo. “The pollution is most of the time limited to the upper layers,” says Lantis’s Dirkx. “There is absolutely no problem with deeper layers.” Van Houtte and many others remain unconvinced.
Flemish inspectors started cracking down last summer. At the end of August the government ordered 3M to stop discharging new types of PFAS, namely PFBSA and two related substances used to make fabrics stain- and water-resistant, into the Scheldt via wastewater.
High concentrations of PFBSA had made it into fish in the estuary of the western side of the Scheldt leading into the North Sea, according to a study paid for by residents of Zwijndrecht late last year. Flounder in the estuary had 24 micrograms of PFOS, seven times above safe limits for people who eat fish once a week.
The negative reports kept coming. A study by two state agencies found the air around 3M was polluted with PFOS, saying it wasn’t clear if construction dust or 3M was the culprit. At the end of October the government ordered 3M to shut down production of almost all PFAS chemicals.
“In 30-plus years of practicing environmental law, I’ve never seen that happen,” says Esther Berezofsky, a lawyer at the US firm Motley Rice who’s advising the Flemish government in its proceedings against 3M.
The company fought the order and lost. Last autumn, 3M’s chief medical officer, Oyebode Taiwo, flew to Antwerp from the US to defend the company in Parliament. He argued that blood tests showing high PFOS levels weren’t proof the chemical caused the health problems that individuals were experiencing.
“It could be due to reverse causation, meaning that it’s not the exposure that is causing the health outcome, but it is the health outcome that is causing the exposure to build up,” he said.
In other words, he argued certain people with specific health conditions are more prone to build up PFAS chemicals in their blood. Scientifically, the idea is dubious. Legally, it’s absurd, says Berezofsky. She points to the “eggshell skull” rule accepted in US law.
“If I walk down the street and I hit somebody over the head, a normal person with a normal skull may just feel a bump. Somebody who has a skull made of an eggshell might die,” she says. “I’m still responsible. The fact that they have an eggshell skull does not relieve me of the liability of what I did.”
Recently the government has started testing as many as 40,000 people living within a 5-kilometer radius of the factory in what could be one of the world’s biggest human studies of forever chemicals.
Residents of central Antwerp just across the river won’t be included even though some live within five kilometers, but a local citizens group crowdfunded to do its own tests on an additional 30 people, including some in central Antwerp. In May it found half that group had PFAS levels in their blood above the European safety levels.
3M says it expects to restart PFAS production in Belgium later this summer. “Will it ever be to the extent and scale as it was over a year ago? Likely not,” Teeters says. After this story came out, 3M issued a statement saying it had “received approval to begin the process toward restarting its manufacturing operations.”
A spokesperson for the Flemish Environment Ministry said it was only a partial restart of a “couple of their processes” but the majority remains closed. Karl Vrancken, the Flemish PFAS commissioner who has been coordinating among agencies to respond to the contamination, says Belgium remains committed to supporting a proposal by a handful of European countries for an EU ban on all PFAS chemicals.
EPA Proposes To Designate Two ‘Forever Chemicals’ As Hazardous, Aiming To Bolster Clean Up
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to designate two types of “forever chemicals” as hazardous substances, aiming to expand both cleanup and accountability for this pollution.
“Forever chemicals,” also called PFAS, have been linked to illnesses including kidney and testicular cancer and thyroid disease.
They’re also notorious for lingering for decades in the environment and human body instead of breaking down over time.
PFAS contamination has become widespread across the U.S. as it has been discharged over the years by both industrial facilities and military bases, the latter of which used it in firefighting foam.
The compounds can be found in a number of household products including nonstick pans, cosmetics and waterproof apparel.
The new proposal from the Biden administration seeks to help impacted communities clean up this waste. If it’s finalized, declaring these substances as “hazardous” under the Superfund law is expected to both speed up the cleanup process and hold polluters responsible.
Melanie Benesh, Vice President for Government Affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said that the proposal would “jumpstart the cleanup process at a lot of contaminated sites and help the EPA hold polluters accountable for the mess that they have been making over decades.”
The hazardous substance designation would allow the EPA to put either the military or private company that contaminated a given area with these substances on the hook to clean it up, and, if they refuse to do so, would give the EPA the power to recoup the costs.
“Both private parties and [the] Department of Defense will really be incentivized to move out on cleanup when they’re responsible for this now that this designation is going to take place,” said Betsy Southerland, former director of the Office of Science and Technology in the EPA’s Office of Water.
“The whole idea behind a hazardous substance is that it can pose imminent and substantial endangerment so you really have to move out on it. And if you don’t, if you refuse to, EPA can do it and then sock you with a really big clean up bill,” she added.
The designation would also require the reporting of releases of the substances, which is expected to give communities information on where these chemicals are being discharged.
While there are thousands of types of PFAS — an acronym that refers to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — the EPA’s proposal only addresses the two most notorious types, called PFOA and PFOS.
Recently, the agency said that these two substances are dangerous to drink, even in miniscule amounts.
A chemical industry trade group pushed back on the EPA’s latest proposal, arguing that it would impose significant costs on businesses.
“The lack of uniform cleanup standards creates substantial uncertainty….affecting federal, state and municipal governments, and other parties such as local fire departments, water utilities, small businesses, airports and farmers,” the American Chemistry Council said in a statement to The Hill.
“A proposed [hazardous substance] designation would impose tremendous costs on these parties without defined cleanup standards, making it impossible for these entities to prepare for the impact of this rule,” the organization said.
The American Chemistry Council also said that the Biden administration’s recent finding that PFOA and PFOS are unsafe at “near-zero” levels further complicates the issue.
It said that taken together, these actions could “lead to an expectation that all contamination be cleaned up to non-detectable levels of the substances.”
The Trump administration previously considered designating these two types of PFAS as hazardous, but did not actually propose a rule to do so.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration is also expected to set enforceable drinking water limits for the substances, but has not proposed these limits yet.
Eradicating The ‘Forever’ From ‘Forever Chemicals’
A promising new development may accelerate efforts to break down damaging molecules that linger for many years in soil, water and our bodies.
You might not have heard of “forever chemicals,” but you’ve certainly been exposed to them. This large family of molecules can be found in everything from the wrapper on your take-out burger to the stain-resistant fabric on your couch.
You might unwittingly encounter them when you floss your teeth, apply your mascara, or fry an egg in your nonstick pan.
Known to scientists as PFAS (shorthand for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), these pervasive chemicals can linger for many years in soil and water — and in our bodies, where they have been linked to a range of diseases.
They’ve been found in the drinking water in many parts of the US, particularly areas near chemical plants that currently or previously made them. So much of this stuff is out there that researchers recently detected unsafe levels in rainwater.
Now, there might be a way to strike the “forever” from those chemicals. Scientists at Northwestern University have come up with a simple and cheap method of breaking down some of these molecules into benign parts.
That feat, and, more realistically, others it might inspire, has the potential to play a critical role in the massive and costly effort to eradicate these chemicals from the environment.
The discovery is far from an immediate solution to the world’s PFAS problem. But it arrives at a time when the US is starting to put real money into efforts to pull these contaminants out of the water supply, which would create a lot of PFAS waste with nowhere good to go.
Forever chemicals exist to add durability during manufacturing and enable consumer-friendly features like water- and grease-resistance.
The problem is that the carbon-fluorine bonds that endow these qualities also make these chemicals annoyingly stable. Getting rid of them is a massive and expensive headache.
One community in North Carolina spent some $50 million to upgrade its water treatment plant to filter out PFAS each year and is on the hook for several million more dollars to change the filter and get rid of the chemicals it captured.
Northwestern professor William Dichtel is one of many scientists working on methods to pull these chemicals out of water. But a question has always lingered, he said. “What do you do with the PFAS after you’ve removed them from contaminated water?”
Prying apart those carbon-fluorine bonds currently requires brute force — think energy-intensive measures like incineration at extreme temperatures. And even that doesn’t always break everything down.
The team from Northwestern team struck upon a simple alternative. Certain types of PFAS (ones featuring carboxylic acids) can be dissolved in mild conditions using just water, a widely used solvent called DMSO, and sodium hydroxide. What’s left in the end is benign.
The lab also partnered with scientists at other universities to do a deep dive into how these chemicals fall apart. Those details may not seem as exciting as an easy recipe for PFAS destruction but are just as important in that they help inform future research.
Such efforts will be needed. The Northwestern team’s findings have not been proven on an industrial scale. DMSO, for example, is not typically used at an industrial scale. The reaction also only works on some kinds of PFAS, so other approaches need to be explored.
Progress in addressing those questions is urgently needed. A lot of forever chemicals could soon be pulled out of our water.
The Biden administration’s infrastructure bill included $1 billion to address PFAS contamination as part of an overall $5 billion commitment, with a particular focus on aiding remediation efforts in small or disadvantaged communities.
As part of the plan, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed lowering the acceptable level in drinking water to practically zero for two older chemicals (PFOA and PFOS), and issued a health advisory for two others.
Last week, the agency proposed adding PFOA and PFOS to its list of hazardous substances, a move that could put some of the clean-up cost back on the chemical companies.
Companies keep churning out forever chemicals, and consumers keep buying products made more convenient because of them.
Unfortunately, that cycle doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon. And although the Northwestern team’s discovery won’t fix the world’s PFAS problems anytime soon, it could help with the clean-up and inspire other inventions that bring safer drinking water closer to reality.
3M To Stop Making, Discontinue Use of ‘Forever Chemicals’
Company says it has already reduced its use of PFAS, which accumulate and take a long time to break down.
3M Co. said it would stop making so-called forever chemicals and cease using them by the end of 2025, as criticism and litigation grow over the chemicals’ alleged health and environmental impact.
3M Chief Executive Mike Roman said that the decision was influenced by increasing regulation of the chemicals known as PFAS, and a growing market for substitute options.
“Customers are taking note of PFAS regulations. They’re looking for alternatives,” Mr. Roman said in an interview. “We’re finding other solutions that have the same properties,” he said.
The company’s move involves chemicals used to make nonstick cookware, food packaging and other consumer and industrial products. 3M estimated its current annual sales of the chemicals total about $1.3 billion.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are commonly called “forever chemicals” because they take a long time to break down in the environment.
Such chemicals include highly durable compounds long prized by manufacturers for their resistance to heat, and their ability to repel water, grease and stains.
In recent decades, research has linked exposure to some forms of the chemicals with health problems including kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease and high cholesterol, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The synthetic compounds have also been found in drinking water, including some municipal systems and private wells, as well as in rainwater around the world.
Regulators and environmental groups have taken aim at the chemicals, and thousands of lawsuits alleging contamination and illness have been filed in recent years targeting 3M and other manufacturers.
3M stopped producing some types of PFAS chemicals in the early 2000s but has continued to make other types, which the company has said can be safely produced and used.
3M said Tuesday it would stop making all fluoropolymers, fluorinated fluids and PFAS-based additive products by the end of 2025.
The company also said it would stop using PFAS across its products by the end of 2025, saying that it has already reduced its use of the substances over the past three years.
3M’s shares closed about 1.1% lower Tuesday, while major U.S. stock indexes increased slightly. The company’s stock has fallen about 32% so far this year, compared with a 20% decline in the S&P 500 stock index.
The EPA has said there are roughly 600 PFAS chemicals in commercial use today. The American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical makers, said Tuesday that PFAS are integral to thousands of products in technologies including semiconductors, batteries for electric vehicles and 5G technology.
The group said its members are dedicated to the responsible production, use, management and disposal of PFAS chemistries, and that it would continue to work with the EPA toward policies that protect human health and allow the chemicals to continue to be used.
3M’s exit from PFAS was seen as a victory by environmental groups that for years have raised alarms over the chemicals.
Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said he didn’t think 3M will ever be held fully accountable for producing the chemicals.
“But by exiting the market they have sent a powerful signal to the other polluters that it’s simply unaffordable to poison all of us,” Mr. Faber said.
3M’s net sales of PFAS chemicals represent about 4% of the company’s total annual sales, according to research by RBC Capital Markets.
“This is a step in the right direction for 3M given all the regulatory scrutiny of PFAS chemicals,” RBC analysts wrote in a note to investors Tuesday.
Over the course of exiting the business of manufacturing the chemicals, 3M said it expects to incur pretax charges of about $1.3 billion to $2.3 billion, including a $700 million to $1 billion charge in the current quarter.
The St. Paul, Minn.-based manufacturer said it intends to fulfill current contractual obligations during the transition period.
The EPA in August proposed designating two forms of PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the federal superfund law.
The American Chemistry Council and companies such as 3M opposed the move, saying that it wasn’t based on the best available science and that it wouldn’t speed up remediation of contaminated sites.
Industry analysts said plant cleanup costs are likely to increase as the EPA uses broad discretion to impose cleanup terms under the Superfund designation.
They said the hazardous substance designation also likely would hinder sales growth for the PFAS chemicals that 3M continues to produce, as customers look for alternatives.
3M pioneered the development of PFAS chemicals in the late 1940s, building on atomic research that used fluorine gas. By bonding fluorine with carbon, 3M found it could create durable compounds that could be adapted for use in consumer and industrial products.
3M’s plants where PFAS chemicals are produced have come under increasing regulatory focus for soil and water contamination.
3M has committed billions of dollars to clean up plant sites in recent years, including an $850 million settlement with the state of Minnesota related to a plant in Cottage Grove, Minn.
The company also agreed earlier this year to provide about $600 million to remediate contamination connected to a plant in Belgium where PFAS chemicals have been produced.
3M also produces PFAS chemicals at plants in Alabama, Illinois and Germany.
3M phased out production of two PFAS chemicals, known as PFOA and PFOS, in the early 2000s. Those two forms of PFAS chemicals have been at the center of thousands of lawsuits targeting 3M and other manufacturers.
3M, DuPont, Other Makers Expected To Face New Drinking Water Rules On ‘Forever Chemicals’
Many lawsuits involve the effects of firefighting foam that contained the chemicals.
New federal drinking water standards could ratchet up legal pressure on 3M Co., DuPont and other companies that manufactured or used so-called forever chemicals.
The Environmental Protection Agency has been stepping up scrutiny of chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
The agency has said it is planning to propose the first federal drinking water limits on them in the coming months, a move some legal experts say could prompt additional lawsuits against PFAS manufacturers.
Research has linked exposure to some forms of the chemicals with health problems including kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease and high cholesterol, according to the EPA. Drinking water containing the chemicals is one way people can potentially be exposed to them, the agency has said.
The federal government has been tightening regulation of the chemicals, and thousands of lawsuits alleging contamination and illness have been filed over the years against 3M, DuPont and other companies that used the chemicals, including paper mills and textile manufacturers.
On Tuesday, 3M said it would stop making PFAS and work to discontinue their use in the company’s products by the end of 2025. 3M Chief Executive Mike Roman said in an interview Tuesday that the decision to eliminate the chemicals was influenced by increasing regulation and a growing market for alternatives.
Most PFAS-related litigation has focused on two chemicals known as PFOA and PFOS that were widely used for decades in products from nonstick cookware to waterproof clothing to firefighting foam.
3M stopped making the two chemicals in the early 2000s, while DuPont and other companies phased them out by 2015 under a voluntary EPA program.
Lawsuits involving firefighting foam that contained those two PFAS chemicals represent a big chunk of the current estimated legal liability for 3M, DuPont and other companies that sold the foam.
According to plaintiffs’ lawyers, the chemicals contaminated drinking water supplies near military sites, airports and training facilities where the foam was used for years.
3M said the firefighting foam helped save service members and civilian lives, and that it produced the foam to the military’s specifications, qualifying the company for legal protection from liability as a government contractor.
DuPont said in a written statement: “We believe these complaints are without merit, and we look forward to vigorously defending our record of safety, health and environmental stewardship.”
The number of lawsuits involving firefighting foam has grown to more than 3,000 from around 75 in 2018. More than 200 public water systems, 14 states and cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore and San Diego have sued the companies over alleged contamination.
The cases are grouped together in federal district court in South Carolina and include claims by firefighters who alleged that repeated exposure to PFAS caused cancer and other illnesses.
The EPA’s planned drinking water standards, if completed, could require thousands of public water systems found containing the chemicals to install additional filtration systems to comply with the new limits, according to an analysis by the American Water Works Association.
That is likely to expand the number of lawsuits against the manufacturers, said some legal experts.
“If you’ve been drinking levels of PFAS that are above the standard, that’s an obvious catalyst for litigation,” said Gianna Kinsman, a vice president for Capstone LLC, a Washington-based firm that advises investors and companies on regulatory issues. The company said it isn’t advising any PFAS manufacturers.
Delaware-based DuPont declined to comment on the possible effects of the EPA water regulation on PFAS litigation.
3M said that a very low threshold for contamination in water would place a heavy burden on communities and companies.
“We have and continue to support federal regulations of PFAS based on the best available science,” a spokesman for 3M said.
The first bellwether trial in the firefighting-foam litigation, over a claim brought by the city of Stuart, Fla., against 3M, DuPont and other makers of firefighting foam, is scheduled to begin in June.
Stuart, a city of roughly 20,000 on the Atlantic Coast, alleges that its municipal wells were contaminated with PFAS during fire-training exercises that took place over many years.
The lawsuits claim manufacturers knew that PFAS were harmful and accumulating in people and the environment, but didn’t alert the EPA for years.
The companies are contesting the claims. 3M said it has agreed to remediate PFOA and PFOS, two forms of PFAS that the company has discontinued, at certain locations where 3M manufactured or disposed of these materials.
The American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing chemical makers, has said it supports a drinking water standard for PFAS based on the best available science, but said the chemicals have diverse properties and shouldn’t be regulated as a class.
The chemicals in use today are essential in products such as cellphones and semiconductors, the group said, and are thoroughly reviewed by regulators.
The group has disputed some of the EPA’s conclusions about the health effects of PFOA and PFOS, including a link between PFOA and kidney cancer.
3M’s liability from PFAS litigation could reach nearly $30 billion by the end of the decade, according to Capstone. The group estimates that more than half of that could be paid to cover claims over firefighting foam.
DuPont has an agreement to share PFAS liability costs with Chemours Co. and Corteva Inc., two companies spun off from DuPont’s predecessor businesses during the past decade. The agreement is set to last until 2040 or up to $4 billion.
Chemours, which now operates DuPont’s legacy chemicals business, declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
The combined liability for DuPont, Chemours and Corteva is estimated at $14 billion, according to Capstone’s calculations.
The chemicals can be removed from drinking water with filtration systems, but lawyers for the plaintiffs said those systems will be expensive, and on a national basis are likely to surpass damages awarded in the litigation.
Matt Pawa, a lawyer representing Vermont, one of the states suing over firefighting foam, said: “The public is going to have to bear the cost of this.”
The Toxic Legacy of 3M’s ‘Forever Chemicals’
The fight over a tunnel project in Belgium has revealed extraordinary levels of toxins in the water, soil and people near the US company’s factory.
The fight over a tunnel project in Antwerp, Belgium has revealed extraordinary levels of toxins in the water, soil and people near 3M’s factory.
While the company said this week that it will cease using or making so-called forever chemicals a few years from now, for people living near the plant, the damage has already been done. And for regulators in Europe, the battle may be just beginning.
In this episode of Bloomberg Storylines, we meet Wendy D’Hollander, who lives across the highway from the Antwerp plant. She said her entire family has high levels of 3M chemicals in their bloodstreams, and that the American company has yet to begin a promised cleanup near their home.
3M Tries To Contain Legal Battles Over ‘Forever Chemicals,’ Earplugs
Manufacturer aims to blunt impact of liability claims with settlement deals and legal maneuvers.
3M Co.’s decision to quit making “forever chemicals” represents a tactical retreat aimed at containing its potential liability over its products in legal fights expected to last for years, analysts say.
3M is defending itself against allegations that chemicals and products it has made for decades have contaminated drinking water and pose health risks.
Legal and industry analysts expect 3M to be engaged for years in remediating alleged soil and water contamination from forever chemicals, which have been used in industrial and consumer products including nonstick cookware, carpeting and firefighting foam.
The Minnesota-based company also is a defendant in liability lawsuits for earplugs manufactured for the military. Claims filed by about 230,000 veterans—a record number of claims in a single federal court case—allege that the earplugs failed to protect them from service-related hearing loss.
3M is contesting the claims. In coming trials over the chemicals’ use in fire-suppression foam, the company is expected to argue that the foam was produced to U.S. military specifications, providing 3M legal protection as a government contractor.
3M has said the earplugs are safe and effective when soldiers get the proper training on how to use them.
Some analysts project the company’s liability costs will reach tens of billions of dollars. 3M lawyers and executives have said they expect the ultimate costs will be much less, forecasting last summer that the earplug cases alone could be settled for $1 billion.
3M CEO Mike Roman has been trying to boost profits from 3M’s slow-growing portfolio of businesses by selling weak performers.
Mr. Roman, who took over leadership of the 120-year-old company in 2018, also is planning to spin off the company’s healthcare business by the end of 2023, giving 3M investors shares in a separate company with some of 3M’s best-performing product lines.
Analysts said investors’ anxiety about the litigation is reflected in 3M’s stock price, which has fallen 32.5% since the beginning of 2022, compared with a 20% decline in the S&P 500 index. The company’s challenges can weigh on the broader equities market because 3M’s stock is a component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
3M is expected to use a series of legal moves to lessen its exposure to liability mixed with negotiated settlements with plaintiffs that, over time, could reduce or spread out its liability costs to manageable amounts, legal analysts said.
“3M will continue to remediate the chemicals and address litigation by defending ourselves in court or through negotiated resolutions,” a company spokesman said.
Analysts said 3M would try to minimize the impact of the litigation costs on the large shareholder dividends that the company is known for on Wall Street.
3M’s efforts to shield itself from liability in the earplugs litigation have hit setbacks. In July, Aearo Technologies LLC, the military-earplug developer that 3M acquired in 2008, filed for bankruptcy protection, citing the litigation.
Aearo’s move attempted to shift earplug-related injury claims against Aearo and 3M to bankruptcy court, where Aearo would attempt to broker a settlement deal that 3M has pledged to pay.
In August, a federal bankruptcy judge in Indianapolis refused to extend to 3M the same bankruptcy-court protection that Aearo received against the pending earplug-injury lawsuits.
The ruling effectively allowed the complaints in federal district court in Florida to continue against 3M without Aearo. Aearo, which is appealing the decision, continues to pursue a settlement deal with the claimants.
Since Aearo’s bankruptcy filing, 3M lawyers in the Florida federal court litigation argued that liability for the alleged injuries from the earplugs should be split between Aearo and 3M.
The judge presiding over the Florida cases rebuked 3M’s arguments in a Dec. 22 ruling, saying 3M assumed responsibility for the product after acquiring Aearo and had previously made no attempt to separate liability. The judge ruled that proceedings in the cases be put on hold, pending an expected appeal of her decision
Liability claims related to chemicals called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are still growing for 3M. Commonly called “forever chemicals” because they take a long time to break down in the environment, the chemicals have highly durable compounds that can resist heat and repel water, grease and stains.
Research has linked exposure to some forms of the chemicals with health problems ranging from kidney and testicular cancers to thyroid disease, the Environmental Protection Agency has said.
Some analysts have predicted that eradicating PFAS chemicals could rival the efforts waged a generation ago to rid buildings and construction materials of asbestos.
Some cautioned that any health impacts from using products with PFAS aren’t as conclusive as with asbestos, which is widely understood to cause a specific type of cancer after prolonged exposure.
“Forever chemicals last a long time, but they’re chemically inert,” said Mark Gulley, who heads a chemical industry consulting firm. “Scientists have to be able to define why they’re a problem.”
About 20 years ago, 3M quit making two varieties of PFAS chemicals that are often linked to health concerns.
Before 3M discontinued production of the two chemicals, it sold them to other companies for use in their products, potentially exposing 3M to litigation and cleanup expenses incurred by other companies, analysts have said.
While the company continued to make other varieties of PFAS chemicals that 3M has said are safe, the company said Dec. 20 that it would wind down its production of those chemicals by the end of 2025, citing increasing regulation and customers’ interest in alternatives.
Ceasing production of the chemicals will limit 3M’s exposure to liability to the chemicals that already exist, analysts said. Profit margins on the chemicals have been declining for 3M as regulations have tightened, UBS Securities wrote in a note to investors.
3M estimated its current annual sales of PFAS chemicals at about $1.3 billion, or about 4% of total sales, according to analyst estimates. Nigel Coe, an analyst for Wolfe Research, said exiting the business would be relatively immaterial for 3M, but is a “reminder of long-tail PFAS remediation and compensation risks.”
‘Forever Chemicals’ Maker Defends Their Use, Says It Will Keep Producing Them
CEO of Chemours says varieties of PFAS chemicals can be made responsibly.
Chemical maker Chemours Co. said it would continue producing so-called forever chemicals, saying that the controversial substances can be made safely and are critical for semiconductors and electric vehicles.
Chemours, one of the largest U.S. makers of fluorine-carbon polymers, said that it is expanding production of some varieties of the chemicals and defending their use. Sales for its fluoropolymer business unit were $1.6 billion in 2022, 16% higher than the prior year, the company reported last week.
“Fluorine chemicals have a place in modern society,” Chemours Chief Executive Mark Newman said in an interview. “You can’t have semiconductors without them.”
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly called PFAS, are long-lasting and resistant to heat, corrosion and moisture. For decades manufacturers have used them to make products such as upholstery coatings, firefighting foam and nonstick pots and pans.
Research has linked exposure to high levels of some types of PFAS with health problems including kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease and high cholesterol, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Called forever chemicals because of their long-lasting properties, some forms of PFAS have been found in drinking water, prompting a wave of liability lawsuits against manufacturers, including Chemours and 3M Co. The companies are contesting the lawsuits.
Increasing regulation of PFAS led 3M in December to say it would cease production of all PFAS and eliminate the use of them in other 3M products by the end of 2025.
The EPA has said the risks from PFAS are difficult to determine because people can be exposed to the chemicals in a variety of ways. Exposure can occur from drinking water or breathing air contaminated with PFAS, the agency has said, or from consumer products that contain the chemicals, including cosmetics and food packaging.
Companies about 20 years ago stopped making two PFAS chemicals, known as PFOA and PFOS, which were widely used and had drawn scrutiny over their potential health effects. The chemical industry has disputed some of the EPA’s health findings.
Chemours said there are currently no viable alternatives for many fluoropolymers. The company said PFAS compounds don’t pose a significant risk to human health or the environment when used for their intended purpose.
The company said its fluoropolymers were developed in compliance with regulations and standards in the U.S. and other countries where they are sold. Chemours said it is committed to eliminating at least 99% of PFAS air and water emissions from its manufacturing process by 2030.
Delaware-based Chemours, which was spun out from DuPont Inc. nearly eight years ago, has estimated that fluorine-based chemicals represented around one-fifth of the company’s total sales in 2022.
nnual profit for the company’s fluoropolymer business on an adjusted basis rose by 29% to $367 million in 2022, the company said.
3M’s net sales of PFAS chemicals were about $1.3 billion last year, or about 4% of the company’s total annual sales.
Chemours’s Mr. Newman told analysts last week on a conference call that fluoropolymers can be made responsibly and said they are essential for expanding U.S.-based manufacturing, particularly for semiconductors.
New plants for making semiconductors are being built in the U.S. to shorten supply chains and reduce domestic manufacturers’ reliance on foreign suppliers for chips.
The company said there are more than 4,700 PFAS compounds, though less than 10% of them are in commercial use.
Last week, the European Union’s chemical-regulatory arm started considering restrictions on the use of PFAS compounds to lower humans’ exposure to them and lessen the potential health effects.
Mr. Newman said the company and its customers in Europe intend to vigorously oppose attempts to impose an outright ban, or what he said could be overly broad restrictions on fluoropolymers.
The company said it is investing in reducing emissions from the production of PFAS compounds at its plant in the Netherlands.
“You can expect that we will be very involved and very vocal with our customers,” Mr. Newman said last week. “This is a chemistry that Europe should embrace, and should embrace participants like ourselves who can make this chemistry responsibly.”
Chemours’ PFAS compounds, including corrosion-resistant, nonstick Teflon, are used in industrial processes and in consumer products.
Chemours said it is the only domestic producer of PFA, a fluoropolymer that is used in very thin film for filtering small particles from fluids during the production of semiconductor chips.
Semiconductors are manufactured in special clean-factory environments, and even tiny particles that infiltrate the production process can contaminate chips used in electronic devices, Chemours said.
PFA also is used in the pipe, tubes, valves, pumps and tank linings of semiconductor production equipment, the company said.
Chemours said Teflon is used in a solvent-free process for manufacturing the battery electrodes for battery-electric vehicles. That reduces the production costs for electrodes and improves the performance of batteries in vehicles, the company said.
A fluoropolymer membrane that Chemours markets as Nafion is used in hydrogen fuel cells for hydrogen electric-powered vehicles and in green-hydrogen electrolyzers that separate hydrogen from oxygen in water.
Chemours in January said it would spend $200 million to expand production of Nafion at a plant in France for the hydrogen and electric-vehicle markets in Europe.
“We continue to make significant investments,” Mr. Newman said.
What To Know About ‘Forever Chemicals’ And Your Health
PFAS exposure has been linked to high cholesterol and an increased risk of kidney cancer.
In the eight decades since they were created, so-called forever chemicals have reached remote corners of the Arctic and been detected in the open ocean and the tissue of animal species as diverse as polar bears and pilot whales.
Also known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, they can stay in the environment for years without breaking down.
Nearly everyone in the U.S. is believed to have some level of PFAS in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Manufacturers have faced thousands of lawsuits that claim that products containing the chemicals were harmful and contaminated the environment. The chemicals maker 3M Co., which made PFAS-containing firefighting foam, said in December that it would stop making and using PFAS by 2025.
Recently, a lawsuit against Thinx, a maker of period underwear, claimed that the absorbent products had PFAS in them. Thinx agreed to a settlement last year, but has said that PFAS weren’t part of its product design.
In March, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first federal limits on PFAS in public drinking water, which would require water utilities to filter out certain PFAS that have contaminated water supplies.
Scientists Are Still Studying The Effects Of Human Exposure To PFAS. Here’s What To Know:
What Are Forever Chemicals?
These are a class of thousands of compounds that have been used in consumer products and industrial manufacturing since the 1940s, often as slippery coatings to repel water or stains.
They are found in a range of products, including carpets and cosmetics, according to the EPA.
They are in coatings for food wrappers, in dental floss, and are used in some electronics manufacturing. PFAS are also in firefighting foams used at airports and military bases.
“It is really one of the broadest categories of chemical ever used, so that does make it very exceptional,” said Phil Brown, an environmental sociologist at Northeastern University in Boston who has studied the chemicals.
How Do PFAS Chemicals Enter The Body?
People can ingest PFAS through food or water, or encounter them in consumer products. More than 2,800 locations in the U.S. have found PFAS in their drinking water, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that tracks the chemicals. Some of those are near military bases that used PFAS-containing foams in exercises for years.
“If people are in a place that has high contamination, then water is going to be important,” Dr. Brown said. “But for the average person who doesn’t have high levels of contamination, food is very often considered to be the most primary route.”
PFAS might pass to food from packaging, or produce and dairy could have PFAS from PFAS-tainted sludge used as a fertilizer, Dr. Brown said. People who hunt or fish might consume meat with high levels of PFAS.
After detecting perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) in rainbow smelt in some lakes, Michigan in January recommended avoiding the fish altogether, or limiting consumption of fish caught in those places.
It is among a handful of states that have issued such warnings after testing game and fish for PFAS compounds.
Some occupations have a higher risk for PFAS exposure because of the tools they work with, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a public-health agency within the CDC that evaluates potentially toxic chemicals.
These include firefighting, painting, laying carpets and even long-term work with ski wax.
Companies have stopped using some PFAS since the early 2000s, and average blood levels for certain PFAS in U.S. residents have decreased since then, according to the CDC. Dr. Brown said companies have turned to other replacement chemicals that aren’t captured in this testing.
Evidence so far suggests that ingested PFAS is absorbed from the intestine, and can travel to the liver, pass into bile and get stored in the gallbladder, according to Jamie DeWitt, an environmental toxicologist at East Carolina University.
When bile enters the small intestine during digestion, the PFAS gets reabsorbed into the bloodstream and recirculated. Also, rather than exit through urine, PFAS can get reabsorbed into the blood from the kidneys.
This is one hypothesis for why many PFAS compounds stay in the body for years, she said. Another is that they stick to proteins in the blood.
What Are The EPA’s Proposed Regulations?
The EPA is proposing limiting two chemicals of PFAS found in drinking water—PFOA and PFOS. The agency would set a limit for PFOA and PFOS of 4 parts per trillion each in public drinking-water systems.
If fully implemented, the rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses, according to the EPA.
The agency also said it would regulate four other PFAS chemicals by requiring treatment if the combined level reaches a certain concentration.
Are PFAS Chemicals Harmful?
The U.S. lacks comprehensive national testing of PFAS in blood, which makes it difficult to know who is most exposed, according to Jane Hoppin, an environmental epidemiologist at North Carolina State University.
The CDC’s blood-monitoring effort wouldn’t capture contamination hot spots where people are more highly exposed to PFAS, she said. That is one reason PFAS health harms are challenging to assess. “The fact that there are multiple chemicals adds to the complexity,” she said, with some PFAS better understood than others.
Scientists have found links between PFAS and a handful of health problems, including high cholesterol, a decreased immune response to vaccines in adults and children, and an increased risk of kidney cancer, according to a 2022 report published by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine that surveyed the scientific evidence on the chemicals.
There isn’t enough research to link any health impacts to specific levels of exposure, according to Dr. Hoppin.
Many studies have examined PFAS and occurrence of ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, and breast and testicular cancer, suggesting a link between the chemicals and an increased risk of each disease, the National Academies report said.
Some studies have examined if PFAS play a role in diabetes and obesity, and disrupt fertility in men and women, but there isn’t enough evidence to make a link, according to the report.
Lab studies in animals have supported some findings. According to the CDC, PFAS have been linked with liver damage, immune disruption, death and delayed development in newborn animals.
“We know they produce a variety of health outcomes in people and in rodents,” Dr. DeWitt said. “And we have enough evidence now to indicate that they alter bodies to increase risk of diseases.”
Are These Chemicals Harmful To Children And Pregnant Women?
PFAS exposure is linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure during pregnancy, according to the National Academies report. PFAS blood levels in mothers are also linked with low birthweight, the report said.
Fetuses and infants are generally more vulnerable to harmful chemicals than adults are, because their brain and critical organs are rapidly developing, according to Laurel Schaider, an environmental health expert at the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass.
PFAS can pass through the placenta of a pregnant woman to the growing fetus, and PFAS can be transmitted to infants through breast milk, according to the report.
Can You Test For PFAS In Blood?
There are established tests for PFAS in blood, but they aren’t routinely offered in the U.S., according to the CDC. Most people who have had their blood tested have been part of health studies run by the CDC or university scientists.
PFAS blood readings don’t indicate whether a person has a particular disease, Dr. Schaider said. But the information can be a valuable benchmark. “If someone is able to have a follow-up blood test, in a few years, they can evaluate whether their levels are going down,” Dr. Schaider said.
In a continuing nationwide study, the CDC and independent research groups are investigating how exposure through drinking water is linked to, for example, thyroid or liver disease, or high cholesterol.
Those studies are testing the blood of volunteer participants in eight regions where PFAS has been found in drinking-water systems.
How ‘Forever Chemicals’ Are All Around Us, From Winter Coats To Fast-Food Wrappers
The EPA is proposing limits in drinking water on some PFAS, which are found in the blood of nearly everyone in the U.S.
The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing the first federal limits for six PFAS chemicals in drinking water.
The chemicals have been used in industry and consumer products worldwide for more than 70 years because of their ability to resist water, grease and stains and to put out fires.
PFAS, also dubbed forever chemicals, have been found in firefighting foam, drinking water, fast-food containers, dental floss, landfills, hazardous waste sites, manufacturing or chemical-production facilities, fish caught from contaminated water and dairy products from livestock exposed to the chemicals.
More states have adopted enforceable standards, guidance levels, notification levels, and/or health advisories or are on track to adopt standards to regulate PFAS in drinking water.
Some of those states are involved in litigation against PFAS manufacturers, alleging the makers are liable for the cost of cleaning up contaminated water supplies and other natural resources, a charge the companies deny.
Nearly everyone in the U.S. has PFAS in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Companies have stopped using some PFAS since the early 2000s, and the levels of certain chemicals in blood have decreased since then.
A 2020 study by the Environmental Working Group found elevated levels of 30 PFAS chemicals in tap water in 31 states and the District of Columbia.
The EPA on Tuesday proposed new rules that would set maximum allowable levels for two compounds in drinking water at 4 ppt—or parts per trillion—each. The EPA also said it would regulate four other PFAS chemicals in drinking water.
Research suggests that exposure to high levels of PFAS may lead to a higher risk of kidney and testicular cancer and other health problems, such as high cholesterol and decreased vaccine response in children, according to the CDC.
People can be exposed to PFAS through air, soil or drinking water contaminated with the chemicals or from consumer products that contain them. PFAS can build up in people over time.
The CDC also noted that it is difficult to show that the substances directly cause health conditions in people and that more study is needed to better understand the health effects of PFAS exposure.
Coastal Town Brings Mass Litigation—and An ‘Existential Threat’—To Chemical Giants
Compounds used in firefighting foam seeped into the groundwater in Stuart, Fla. Now it’s at the forefront of thousands of suits against the makers.
STUART, Fla.—In 2016, city leaders gathered to discuss some alarming news about their coastal town.
An aide to a local congressman had told them that the drinking water in Stuart, a community of about 18,000, contained levels of chemicals that exceeded new federal guidelines.
Most of the officials present at the meeting at city hall had never heard of the chemicals or knew why they were a problem. Stuart had twice won a state award for having the best-tasting water around.
The water manager paced the room in disbelief, according to Mike Mortell, Stuart’s city attorney, who retreated to his office to scour the internet for any information he could find.
Seven years later, the small city of retirees and tourists 40 miles north of Palm Beach is at the forefront of one of the nation’s biggest environmental legal battles, over a class of chemicals known as PFAS.
The fight pits hundreds of municipalities and about a dozen states against corporate giant 3M and other companies that made or sold the chemicals or firefighting foam containing them.
Cities from Philadelphia to San Diego allege that for decades companies supplied the foam despite knowing it was toxic and would eventually taint water supplies.
The foam was good at putting out fires, the cities say, but created a different risk: People could get sick from drinking the local water.
Stuart’s lawsuit is now one of more than 4,000 against 3M and other companies. Stuart is one of 300 cities seeking to recover the cost of filtering the chemicals out of water. Many other lawsuits allege personal injuries from exposure to the foam.
Stuart, which bills itself as the Sailfish Capital of the World, has been chosen by plaintiff and defense attorneys as the first case to go to trial. Jury selection is set to begin June 5 in federal court in Charleston, S.C., where the cases have been consolidated.
3M and the other companies have said in legal filings that the chemicals haven’t been shown to cause health problems at the levels being discovered in drinking water.
“As the science and technology of PFAS, societal and regulatory expectations, and our expectations of ourselves have evolved, so has how we manage PFAS,” 3M said. “We will continue to fulfill our PFAS remediation commitments and address litigation by defending ourselves in court or through negotiated resolutions, all as appropriate.”
The company said that “PFAS are safely made and used in many modern products” but that it would no longer manufacture the chemicals by the end of 2025 because of increased regulations focused on reducing their presence in the environment.
Leading up to the Stuart trial, 3M has argued in court filings that the city is seeking “wildly inflated damages.”
Presiding Judge Richard Gergel said at a hearing that the case could represent “an existential threat” for the companies if the trial doesn’t go their way. Industry analysts have estimated the potential liability from firefighting-foam cases at more than $15 billion for 3M alone. The company didn’t comment on that estimate.
PFAS are man-made chemicals and were once renowned for their ability to resist heat, water, grease and stains. In recent years, hundreds of the compounds have been used to produce a wide range of goods, from nonstick pans to semiconductors.
For years, Stuart’s firefighters used foam containing the chemicals in training exercises at the city’s two fire stations.
The chemicals accumulate in people, and industries from clothing to cosmetics and fast food are eliminating them from their products amid mounting evidence linking PFAS to cancers and other serious health problems. Some states are moving to ban the chemicals entirely.
In March, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first-ever federal limits on six PFAS chemicals that are showing up in drinking water.
The regulation, if adopted, could require water utilities that collectively serve up to 90 million people to install costly filtering systems, the agency said.
In November, the EPA described PFAS chemicals as “an urgent public health and environmental issue facing communities across the United States.” In many cases, the presence of PFAS in drinking water has been traced to industrial discharges and landfills—and firefighting foam.
As the trial approaches, the sides are presenting vastly different accounts of the chemicals’ risks and who should pay for cleaning them up.
“If you ask the plaintiffs’ counsel, they would say, ‘This is like one of the greatest environmental tragedies in the history of man,’” the judge said during a hearing. “And the defense lawyers said: ‘I’ll drink it by the bottle, and it won’t hurt us.’”
At the edge of a field behind Stuart’s ocean blue and teal firehouse sits a large plastic vat draped in a tarp. A sign reads “Danger Hazardous Chemicals,” a warning about the 150 gallons of foam the city has yet to dispose of.
From about 1990 through early 2016, Stuart firefighters trained nearly once a week with what is called aqueous film-forming foam, which included PFAS in its ingredients.
In hundreds of training sessions, crews sprayed the foam on a field, blanketing the ground as they would for a fuel-driven fire or a large fuel spill, said Fire Chief Vincent Felicione.
Afterward, he said, they hosed the foam down to keep it from blowing into yards, and watched as it sank into the ground.
In 2013, the EPA began requiring water systems of a certain size to test for PFAS. Subsequent testing revealed that all 26 of Stuart’s municipal wells had detectable levels of the chemicals.
The city took the three wells that had the highest levels offline and notified residents about the situation.
Like hundreds of other cities, Stuart officials said they didn’t initially know how PFAS had gotten into the water. The area, with its Old Florida bungalows and boat slips along the St. Lucie River, had dealt with other water issues before.
But those stemmed from agricultural runoff that caused toxic algae to cloud the river and its tributaries.
An environmental consulting firm found the highest levels of the chemicals near the main firehouse and a second firehouse where training with the foam also took place, and concluded they would continue to leach into the drinking water supply for years.
The chemicals were also discovered in private wells at a trailer park near a retirement community called Leisure Village. Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection began hauling in bottled water for residents, mostly immigrants from Honduras, Mexico or Guatemala.
Seeking a longer-term solution, Stuart allocated funds to build a new filtration system at the water treatment plant. It also hired a lawyer to look into getting the chemical companies to foot the bill.
The town, the seat of a heavily Republican county, was hardly a hotbed of environmental activism. It had rarely filed lawsuits, said Mayor Troy McDonald. But in early 2018, the city commission voted to sue 3M and other companies that sold it firefighting foam.
The city is suing for roughly $115 million. That includes $3 million spent to build the filtration system, another $2 million to expand it, plus $80 million to operate the system for the next 40 years and $30 million to clean up contaminated soil.
Chemical companies were already facing litigation. In 2017, DuPont had agreed to pay $670 million to settle 3,600 claims by West Virginia and Ohio residents alleging that cancer and other ills they contracted resulted from one particular PFAS chemical, called PFOA, in their water.
The contamination was traced to a nearby plant that made Teflon.
A year later, 3M agreed to pay $850 million to settle a suit by the state of Minnesota alleging that groundwater was polluted by PFAS, dumped in landfills.
The companies didn’t admit wrongdoing in the settlements. But the suits unearthed a trove of internal health studies and communications about the chemicals.
Starting in the 1970s, animal studies by 3M scientists found that a type of PFAS the company had long produced, PFOS, caused effects in mice, rats and rhesus monkeys, from tremors to death, according to company memos.
By the late 1970s, 3M officials realized the chemical was toxic and in the blood of the general population, according to an internal company timeline.
In a 1998 memo, a 3M scientist said a safe level for that chemical in human blood was 1.05 parts per billion, which was 1/30th the average level of it found in the general population’s blood supply at the time.
That year, a 3M official referred to PFOS in a memo as “insidiously toxic.”
In 1998, the company submitted its toxicology studies to the EPA and informed the agency that PFOS was in the blood supply of the general population, which prompted the agency to begin investigating.
3M stopped producing PFOS and firefighting foam by the end of 2002. It later reached a $1.5 million settlement with the EPA to resolve 244 allegations of having failed to report information about PFOS and other chemicals to the agency.
In court filings, 3M has said it hasn’t withheld information about the potential health effects of PFAS from the government.
Stuart officials learned last September that the legal teams working on the thousands of suits had agreed their case should be first to trial.
As lead trial counsel, the plaintiff team chose Gary Douglas, a rock musician turned New York trial attorney. He had tried the case that led to the $670 million settlement with DuPont, after which he co-wrote a ballad about it called “Deep in the Water.”
“There’s never been a case that’s gone to trial against 3M where the whole story is going to be told, what they knew and when they knew it and how virtually the entire planet is now contaminated,” Douglas said.
3M has its own seasoned trial lawyers: Beth Wilkinson, who represented Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his rocky confirmation, and Brian Stekloff, who serves as national trial counsel for Monsanto in litigation over its weedkiller Roundup.
3M has argued in court that the company should be shielded from some suits over firefighting foam because it was a government contractor supporting the U.S. Navy’s development of the foam, which the company describes as “a critical tool…for military service members and other first responders.”
3M’s attorneys recently said they wouldn’t pursue that line of defense in the Stuart trial but that they still plan to discuss the benefits of the foam.
John Gardella, an attorney who advises companies about compliance with PFAS regulations, said the case is being widely watched because any verdict “will set an initial benchmark by which all other water-utility-related lawsuits on the docket will be judged.”
A thousand miles from a war room set up by plaintiff lawyers in Manhattan, filled with cardboard banker boxes and exhibits, the emerging legal battle over PFAS contamination is only starting to edge into many people’s awareness in Stuart.
Last fall, Stuart alerted residents that the town’s water had registered one of the chemicals in amounts above the EPA’s latest health advisory level for a single day. Town officials said it wasn’t an emergency, but they wanted to inform people.
A few blocks from city hall, a message on a store that sells home water filtration systems reads “Stop Drinking Unregulated Chemicals.” The owner said he has seen a surge in business.
Theresa Kudo brings jugs of bottled water to her sister at an assisted-living facility. She filters her own drinking water, but worries that’s not enough.
“Filtering my drinking water doesn’t help me when I’m taking a shower or a bath,” she said. “We have this big bathtub outside on our back porch. I’m thinking ‘Oh my gosh,’ since your skin absorbs things in water or lotions, it makes me worry about soaking chemicals into my body.”
Doctors recently found a benign nodule on her thyroid, Kudo said, and she can’t help but wonder if PFAS might have had something to do with it.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommended last summer that doctors screen people with high blood levels of PFAS for conditions including thyroid disease, testicular cancer and kidney cancer.
From his office, within sight of a water tower that rises over Stuart and is emblazoned with the city’s name and an American flag, Mortell, the city attorney, said Stuart hadn’t been looking for a fight. Now, he is figuring on a decadeslong slog to rid Stuart’s groundwater of PFAS.
“We all estimate it will take longer than our lifetimes,” he said. “We’ve got a monumental endeavor ahead of us.”
Settlement Talks Prompt Delay Request In 3M ‘Forever Chemicals’ Trial
Lawyers seek pause on eve of landmark environmental battle.
Attorneys for both sides in a landmark environmental battle set to begin Monday in federal court are seeking to delay the trial so they can work out the terms of a potential settlement, according to a court motion filed late Sunday.
According to a joint motion filed by attorneys for corporate giant 3M and the city of Stuart, Fla., the two parties want a delay in order to finish final details of a settlement over Stuart’s claims that chemicals supplied by 3M polluted its water supply.
The potential settlement would likely cover claims brought by hundreds of other cities that allege, like Stuart, that 3M for years supplied firefighting foam it knew would eventually taint groundwater.
“The parties are making material and significant progress toward a resolution, and believe that their time would be more productively spent attempting to resolve the matter,” the filing says.
On Monday, 3M, one of the biggest U.S. corporations, was set to face off against Stuart, Fla., a city of 18,000 on the Atlantic coast north of Palm Beach.
Stuart is seeking $115 million for the cost of building and operating a treatment system to filter out PFAS it detected in its water wells, and to clean up soil contaminated with the chemicals.
Stuart’s case was chosen as a bellwether from about 300 other lawsuits filed by cities from Philadelphia to San Diego, and it was expected to determine whether 3M and other companies would pay to filter the chemicals from drinking water, or if those costs would be borne by water systems and ratepayers.
The city says its fire department trained with 3M’s foam, which was effective at extinguishing fuel fires, hundreds of times. Chemicals in the foam leached into the soil and spread into Stuart’s drinking supply, the city alleges.
Litigation involving PFAS has been on the rise as federal and state regulators have cracked down on the chemicals and started imposing limits on them in drinking water.
In March, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed limits on six PFAS chemicals and said that public water systems serving as many as 94 million people could be required to install filtration systems, if the agency’s regulations are finalized.
The American Water Works Association, an industry group, has estimated the cost of complying with the proposed EPA regulations at roughly $64 billion over 20 years for more than 7,000 public water systems that could be affected.
PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down easily in the environment, and they have increasingly been linked to cancer and other health problems.
3M has said in legal filings that the chemicals haven’t been shown to cause health problems at the levels being discovered in drinking water, and that Stuart is seeking “wildly inflated damages.”
The company said that “PFAS are safely made and used in many modern products” but that it would no longer manufacture the chemicals by the end of 2025 because of increased regulations focused on reducing their presence in the environment.
“As the science and technology of PFAS, societal and regulatory expectations, and our expectations of ourselves have evolved, so has how we manage PFAS,” 3M said. “We will continue to fulfill our PFAS remediation commitments and address litigation by defending ourselves in court or through negotiated resolutions, all as appropriate.”
Stuart officials have said they were alarmed in May 2016 to learn that PFAS in the city’s water exceeded a federal safety guideline. They say the city was forced to shut three of its most contaminated wells and try to figure out how the chemicals had gotten into the water supply.
“It was hell. And when I say hell, it was crisis management at its best, always worried about what a well sample would show up, how much was in it,” David Peters, the city’s former assistant public works director, testified in a deposition. “We lived this for two years.”
Peters was expected to be called as a witness by the plaintiffs in the trial.
A consulting firm traced the contamination to foam at Stuart’s two fire stations, where the city’s firefighters had sprayed it during training sessions from about 1990 to 2016.
A filtration system added to the city’s water-treatment plant in 2019 has reduced the levels of the chemicals, according to court documents.
The Stuart case is one of more than 4,000 firefighting-foam lawsuits against 3M and other companies that have been consolidated in federal court in Charleston, S.C.
In addition to the 300 water-provider claims, there are many more involving personal-injury claims that will be handled in a second phase of the litigation. Firefighters, military personnel and others say exposure to PFAS in the foam caused their illnesses.
More lawsuits are added each week. Since May 30, Maryland, Oregon, Washington and Arizona have sued 3M and other companies over PFAS in firefighting foam that allegedly contaminated groundwater after being used at sites such as airports and military installations. They follow about a dozen states that are already part of the litigation.
Judge Richard Gergel, who is presiding over the Stuart case, has kept the sprawling firefighting-foam litigation on track over the past four years, including through the height of the pandemic.
More than four million documents have been produced in the case, including nearly 800,000 by 3M, according to court filings. The court has set aside about five weeks for trial.
Gary Douglas, a New York trial attorney, is the lead trial counsel for Stuart. Douglas had previously tried PFAS cases that led to a $670 million settlement with DuPont.
3M is being represented at the trial by Beth Wilkinson, who served as counsel for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation, and Brian Stekloff, who serves as national trial counsel for Monsanto in litigation over its weedkiller Roundup.
On Friday, Chemours, DuPont and Corteva said they would pay $1.185 billion to resolve the water-provider claims against them. The companies said the proposed settlement, which is subject to court approval and enough municipalities joining it, could cover systems that serve most of the U.S. population.
The three companies, which had already been removed from the Stuart case, continue to face personal-injury lawsuits stemming from exposure to firefighting foam. They have said they deny the allegations in the underlying litigation.
3M made firefighting foam that contained PFAS beginning in the 1960s. Known as aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, the foam was widely used for decades by the military and fire departments to suppress liquid-fuel fires by forming a blanket that prevented gases from reigniting.
3M Settles ‘Forever Chemicals’ Litigation For Up To $12.5 Billion
Lawsuits say the company’s PFAS, used in firefighting foam, contaminated drinking water.
3M MMM agreed to pay up to $12.5 billion to settle hundreds of lawsuits brought by cities that said their drinking water was contaminated with “forever chemicals” the company made for decades.
The tentative national class-action settlement in a landmark environmental fight involving PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam was reached Thursday. 3M will pay between $10.5 billion and $12.5 billion, and the settlement will cover public water systems across the U.S., plaintiffs’ attorneys said.
If completed, it would be among other major settlements involving litigation over products deemed to be health risks, including the massive agreements reached in lawsuits involving tobacco, opioids and asbestos.
In the current case, the risk of exposure came from chemicals in firefighting foam that seeped into the ground in communities around the country.
The move to resolve the current litigation comes as companies in numerous industries search for alternatives to PFAS—once used in everything from pizza boxes to cosmetics and semiconductors—and attempt to contain liabilities from decades of use.
3M, which manufactured and used the chemicals since the 1940s, is at the center of a wave of litigation alleging that they have contaminated drinking water and caused health problems. PFAS are called forever chemicals because they don’t break down in the environment.
3M Chief Executive Mike Roman called the proposed settlement “an important step forward for 3M,” and he said it builds on the company’s other actions, including investments in water-filtration technology and a prior announcement to stop all PFAS manufacturing by the end of 2025.
3M said that the agreement isn’t an admission of liability and that if it isn’t approved by the court or certain conditions aren’t met, the company is prepared to defend itself in the litigation.
The company said it would take a $10.3 billion charge in the second quarter to reflect the settlement that will be paid over 13 years.
3M announced the agreement nearly three weeks after a judge postponed a bellwether trial in which 3M had been scheduled to face off against a Florida city that alleged the company was responsible for drinking water contamination.
Just before jury selection had been set to begin, Judge Richard Gergel in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina said he wanted to give the two sides more time to negotiate a settlement. The proposed settlement is subject to his approval.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys said the 3M settlement would help cities and water providers across the country upgrade treatment systems to filter out PFOS, a type of PFAS that 3M used in firefighting foam for decades and that has been found in drinking water nationwide.
“Water is a fundamental necessity, and by holding 3M accountable for the PFOS contamination, we are fortifying the right of every American to clean and safe drinking water,” said Paul Napoli, a lead plaintiffs attorney.
About 300 municipalities, from Philadelphia to San Diego, say PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam leached into drinking water.
Cities have sued 3M and other companies to recoup the costs of installing treatment systems, typically seeking damages in the tens of millions of dollars.
The current proposed settlement applies to those water-related cases, but leaves hundreds of other lawsuits involving personal injury and property claims unresolved.
More than 4,000 lawsuits involving firefighting foam that contained PFAS have been consolidated in federal court in Charleston, S.C., and are being overseen by Judge Gergel.
PFAS have increasingly been the focus of regulations and efforts by companies to remove them amid mounting evidence linking them to cancers and other health problems.
How ‘Forever Chemicals’ Are All Around Us, From Winter Coats to Fast-Food Wrappers
In March, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first federal limits on six types of PFAS in drinking water, which the agency said could require water systems serving up to 94 million people to install costly treatment systems.
The number of lawsuits involving the chemicals has exploded amid growing regulations, with firefighting foam cases growing from about 75 in 2018 to more than 4,000 today.
3M and other companies also face PFAS liability from other lawsuits that don’t involve firefighting foam, such as personal-injury claims tied to industrial discharges of the chemicals.
The firefighting foam, known as aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, had been widely used since the 1960s by the military and fire departments.
The highly durable chemicals resist heat and helped create a blanket that effectively smothered liquid-fuel fires. During training exercises the foam was allowed to seep into the groundwater.
A lawsuit filed by Stuart, Fla., a city of 18,000 north of Palm Beach, had been chosen as a bellwether for the water system cases.
The city said foam that firefighters trained with for decades included chemicals made by 3M that had tainted the city’s drinking water.
It had sued 3M for $115 million to recover the cost of installing and operating a filtration system over the next 40 years to remove the chemicals and to clean up contaminated soil. A trial had been set to begin June 5.
Mike Mortell, Stuart’s city attorney, said he was grateful that the two sides were able to reach a global resolution and that city officials would hold a meeting on Friday afternoon to discuss ratifying the settlement.
“The city is very happy that it played a part in resolving this issue for all of the water providers,” Mortell said.
3M and the other companies have said in legal filings that PFAS haven’t been shown to cause health problems at the levels being discovered in drinking water. It has argued in court filings that Stuart was seeking “wildly inflated damages.”
3M has said that “PFAS are safely made and used in many modern products” but that it would no longer manufacture the chemicals by the end of 2025 because of increased regulations focused on reducing their presence in the environment.
3M stopped producing some PFAS chemicals in the early 2000s but has continued to make other types.
Earlier this month, three companies with ties to former chemical maker DuPont announced a separate agreement to pay $1.185 billion to settle water-related claims in the foam litigation.
Chemours, DuPont and Corteva reached the proposed nationwide class-action settlement to resolve their part in the water-provider lawsuits brought by the roughly 300 communities.
The companies said the agreement could eventually cover public systems that provide drinking water to the majority of the U.S. population.
3M’s $10.5 billion to $12.5 billion agreement to settle PFAS claims with 300 cities puts it among the largest liability settlements ever proposed or finalized.
The cities claimed firefighting foam made with PFAS contaminated drinking water and posed health risks. 3M has disputed those claims.
‘Frankenstein Chemicals’ Are Even Worse Than ‘Forever Chemicals’
PFAS get a lot of attention, but there are other compounds in our drinking water that are more dangerous — and much more common.
Health fads come and go, but drinking more water (and less beer and soda) is one of the few things that’s unequivocally good for the human body.
It should be as easy as putting a glass under the tap, but what kinds of potentially harmful chemicals lurk there? News that 3M is paying more than $10 billion to clean “forever chemicals” from municipal drinking water isn’t helping our confidence.
Susan Richardson, a former EPA chemist now at the University of South Carolina, has been working to establish a big-picture view — using an instrument that can measure the relative abundance of different kinds of chemical contaminants.
She’s been following the forever chemicals (polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS) for 30 years, but she’s come to realize that for most of us, these likely pose a minor threat compared to something else — the chemicals that form spontaneously as a byproduct of water disinfection.
In most areas, the concentration of these disinfection byproducts (DBPs) is 1,000 times greater than the forever chemicals. And the toxicity of the DBPs is worse.
Richardson says she thinks disinfection byproducts are getting less attention from the public, and from the EPA, because “forever chemicals” is such an attention-grabbing name. She suggested we call DBPs “everyday chemicals” but that label doesn’t quite have the same ominous sound.
Maybe “Frankenstein chemicals” would grab more attention — and underline that these compounds are made up of a scary hodgepodge of different pieces.
She worries that new EPA regulations on PFAS could be focusing limited resources on PFAS when other contaminants are being ignored.
Risk communication consultant Peter Sandman has said that people’s experience of risk is the sum of hazard (the probability of being killed or harmed) and an outrage factor.
Forever chemicals created by a huge company can raise outrage — but it’s hard to get people enraged about compounds that aren’t made by any particular company, but form spontaneously following a process that’s considered a triumph of public health.
Many of us have gotten used to that chlorine smell from our taps. But we don’t have to accept chemicals in our water to ensure it’s free of disease-causing parasites, bacteria and algae.
There are many ways to disinfect water — chlorinating, ozonating, chlorine dioxide, UV — and some are more prone to creating dangerous byproducts.
Filtration using activated carbon can catch disinfection byproducts and forever chemicals, but it’s expensive and should be deployed where it’s needed most. People can pay for filters at home, but that’s unfair to the many people who can’t afford it.
Providing clean water will become more challenging with a changing climate and increasingly prolonged droughts. In El Paso, Texas, the municipal water plant is gearing up to reuse wastewater — something that might become more necessary there and elsewhere.
In California, too, there are systems where wastewater is injected underground and then disinfected for “indirect” reuse.
It’s been hard, until recently, to get a big-picture comparison of different kinds of chemical contaminants because there are hundreds of compounds that fall into the category of DBPs and PFAS.
The specific disinfection byproducts in your community depend not just on how municipal water is disinfected, but on how much natural organic matter and salt is in the source water.
Salts can come from proximity to the ocean or even to an ancient ocean whose residual salts leach into the groundwater. Fracking often dislodges natural iodide salt, which tends to form the most toxic disinfection byproducts.
So what ends up in your water includes a complicated brew of compounds formed in reactions between natural organic matter, salts, industrial waste and other pollutants, and the chemicals added for disinfection.
Right now, there are about 700 compounds known to be formed from disinfection, but only 11 are regulated. And those aren’t the most dangerous, said Richardson.
There are implications here for PFAS, too. Some studies have suggested there are thousands of PFAS, but Richardson says there aren’t thousands of industrial PFAS products.
Some could be fragmenting or combining with other chemicals, forming new unnatural, long-lived compounds.
Richardson’s been sorting this out with a rare instrument that does combustion ion chromatography. With it, she can take a drinking water sample and measure the total concentration of all the organic compounds containing fluorine — which corresponds roughly to the total of all the PFAS contaminants because there are few other sources of fluorinated organic compounds in water. (Note that although it sounds similar, fluoride — added to water for dental health — is a different chemical and irrelevant here.)
Both PFAS and DBPs are considered halogenated organic chemicals because they include atoms of the halogens — fluorine, chlorine, bromine and iodine.
The DBPs are the primary source of any such compounds with chlorine, bromine and iodine, and the instrument can measure the full burden of those as well.
It also matters which of these compounds actually cause harm to the human body.
Toxicology studies using animals or other model systems have shown that both PFAS and DBPs can potentially cause cancer and other health problems.
But it takes epidemiology to connect exposures in the real world to clusters of cancer or other diseases.
There is compelling epidemiology tying PFAS to high cholesterol, and some evidence for decreased male fertility. For DBPs, epidemiological studies have revealed connections to bladder and colon cancer.
These studies can’t connect any individual cancer case to chemical pollution — but they suggest some fraction of people with cancer would not have gotten sick if not for DBPs in water. That’s unacceptable.
We should all be able to drink from the tap and know we’re improving our health — not putting it in jeopardy.
Nearly Half of U.S. Tap Water Contains ‘Forever Chemicals,’ Study Says
Study tested water in more than 700 locations nationwide.
Close to half of the U.S. tap water supply is contaminated with so-called forever chemicals, a comprehensive study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated, amplifying public-health concerns over the nation’s drinking water.
Researchers detected at least one of the chemicals—known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—in about 45% of U.S. drinking-water samples. They took samples from private and public water supplies in 716 locations nationwide from 2016 to 2021, the agency said Wednesday, testing for 32 of 12,000 PFAS compounds.
The study, researchers said, amounted to one of the most extensive assessments of forever chemicals in U.S. drinking supplies.
The chemicals, long used in consumer products, are found in water, air, food and soil, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Scientists have linked the chemicals to a number of health problems including high cholesterol, a decreased immune response to vaccines and an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer and thyroid disease.
Nearly everyone in the U.S. has some level of PFAS in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The U.S. Geological Survey’s study found exposure to PFAS was more common in areas including the Great Plains, the Great Lakes region, the Eastern Seaboard and central and Southern California. There was a higher probability of detecting the chemicals in urban areas or places with a history of contamination compared with more rural areas, the study found.
Researchers collected samples directly from the taps of residences, office buildings and schools, said Kelly Smalling, a USGS research hydrologist and lead author on the study.
The study was the first to examine PFAS contamination in private wells, which aren’t regulated by the EPA, she said. About 40 million U.S. residents receive their drinking water from private wells, according to the study.
“This data is giving folks across the country an idea of what to expect or what may be happening with PFAS in their tap water,” Smalling said.
The study adds to research showing the proliferation of these chemicals, which resist heat and repel grease, stains and water. They have been used in consumer products—including carpets, grease-resistant paper and cosmetics—and industrial manufacturing since the 1940s.
PFAS chemicals take a long time to break down and accumulate in humans and the environment, according to the EPA.
The EPA in March proposed the first federal limits on six PFAS compounds in public drinking water. The proposed limits, which aren’t expected to be finalized until the end of 2023, are expected to cost water utilities billions of dollars to filter out these substances.
A growing number of states are banning PFAS in products such as food packaging. Maine earlier this year became the first state to require companies to report if they manufacture, import or sell products with these chemicals.
Some companies announced plans to stop using PFAS, including 3M, which said in December it would stop using them entirely by the end of 2025. Lawsuits have targeted companies using the chemicals in products and packaging.
Lots of Tap Water Contains ‘Forever Chemicals.’ Take These Steps to Reduce Your Risk
You can’t avoid toxic PFAS chemicals completely but you can lessen your exposure at home.
Toxic “forever chemicals” are all over your home. But filtering your water can reduce your exposure.
These synthetic chemicals, also called PFAS, have long been used in consumer products, showing up in everything from makeup and dental floss to carpets, raincoats and nonstick pans. They have been linked to many health problems including cancer.
Called “forever chemicals” because they take a long time to break down, PFAS are widespread but it can be hard to tell if a particular product contains them.
The main way these chemicals damage your health is if you eat, drink or inhale them. Your drinking water is probably your biggest risk inside your home: Nearly half of U.S. tap water is contaminated with PFAS, according to a recent U.S. Geological Survey study.
In addition, PFAS chemicals in carpets and upholstery can shed off and be inhaled. There’s some limited evidence that you can absorb these chemicals from wearing clothing or touching something with PFAS, says Ned Calonge, associate dean of public health practice at Colorado School of Public Health at the Anschutz Medical Campus.
“You really can’t avoid all exposure but you can try to avoid some of the common sources,” says Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
Here’s what to know about forever chemicals in your home—and how to reduce your risk.
Why Are These Chemicals Harmful?
PFAS, shorthand for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are chemicals that include a very strong carbon-fluorine bond. These chemicals have special properties that make them a popular component in products that repel water and resist stains and grease.
But this bond is also what makes PFAS hard to break down in the environment and in our bodies, where they can remain for years.
Just about everyone has some level of PFAS in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You can ask your doctor about testing your blood for PFAS levels.
The chemicals have been linked to myriad health problems, including high cholesterol, certain types of cancer and a decreased immune response, says Jackie Goodrich, a research associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan.
Many companies stopped using two of the most commonly known types of these chemicals, known as PFOA and PFOS, in the early 2000s. Others are phasing them out. But scientists say some companies are using replacements that may have similar harmful properties.
How To Reduce PFAS In Your Tap Water
Drinking water is one of the most ubiquitous and harmful sources of PFAS exposure, scientists say. On the other hand, showering or washing dishes in water with PFAS isn’t considered a risk, the CDC says.
Earlier this year the EPA proposed federal limits on certain PFAS compounds in public drinking water, which could be finalized by the year’s end. In the meantime, experts say there are steps you can take.
Contact your local water utility to see if they are measuring PFAS and what the levels are, says Aleksandra Szczuka, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan.
Use commonly sold filters to filter your tap water. A recent study from EWG evaluated 10 different filters and found four that reduced the PFAS in the water by 100% or nearly 100%. They included Clearly Filtered, Epic Water Filter, ZeroWater, and Travel Berkey.
A six-cup pitcher from popular brand Brita reduced 66% of PFAS in water, while a seven-cup pitcher from PUR reduced PFAS by 79%.
Stoiber says the most effective way to remove PFAS from drinking water is to install a reverse osmosis system in your home. They need to be installed under sinks and you can buy them from stores like Home Depot.
If you get your water from a private well, you may want to get it tested for PFAS and other contaminants, she says. Your local water authority may test samples, or you may be able to find an independent lab.
What About Carpets And Upholstery?
It’s hard to know for sure whether your rugs or couches contain PFAS. One likely indicator is when a product is marketed as stain-resistant or stainproof. You can also call or email the manufacturer to ask.
Some companies, including Home Depot, Lowe’s and IKEA, have declared that they are phasing out PFAS in their carpets.
Be wary of marketing that says a product is free of one particular PFAS chemical, such as PFOA. “That means they probably have a different one in there,” says Goodrich.
Carpets that contain PFAS are likely continually shedding the chemicals, says Phil Brown, director of the social science environmental health research institute at Northeastern University. It’s unclear whether such shedding goes down or up over time or is reduced when washed or steam-cleaned, scientists say.
Of course, you could try to replace all your carpets with ones that you’re certain don’t contain PFAS. Short of that, you can reduce household dust by frequently vacuuming, mopping and dusting, says the Green Science Policy Institute, a nonprofit based in Berkeley, Calif.
Try to use a vacuum with a HEPA filter and mechanical power head. You can also put a non-PFAS- treated play mat or rug over the carpet.
Other Household Items To Check
Fish caught from water contaminated by PFAS, floss made with PFAS, and food packaged in material containing PFAS, which is commonly used in fast-food containers due to its grease-resistant properties, are potentially risky, says Calonge.
It can be hard to know whether products contain PFAS—many items don’t list chemicals that they contain. Even in products that list ingredients, PFAS may be present even if they aren’t listed, as a 2021 study examining makeup found.
Many nonstick pans were made with PFAS. If the surface is still intact the chemical won’t leach into your food, but if it’s scratched you should throw it away, says Calonge.
Even if a nonstick pan says it’s made without PFAS, it’s still safer to cook with something made of cast iron, glass, stainless steel or carbon steel, says the Environmental Working Group.
Got Plastic With A No. 2 Recycling Symbol? Beware A Toxic Problem
A little-known American company has been giving plastic a special touch called fluorination for 40 years. After the EPA discovered treated containers can leach “forever chemicals,” the company refused to stop.
Kyla Bennett, an ecologist and attorney in Easton, Massachusetts, subscribes to a school of thought called antispeciesism, which considers the preferential treatment of any animal species over another, humans included, to be unethical.
So she’s long railed against the use of chemicals to kill insects, especially over a 26-square-mile stretch of freshwater wetlands and soggy woodlands near her home.
For thousands of years, the Wampanoag people sought refuge and sustenance in the area and considered it alive with spirits.
Today it’s called the Hockomock Swamp and retains lore of the paranormal, with reported sightings of Bigfoot and UFOs, but it’s mostly a place to walk dogs and paddle canoes.
It’s also home to an uncommon species of mosquito that carries a rare but highly lethal brain-swelling virus called eastern equine encephalitis, or EEE. To curb its spread, state officials have long used a pesticide named Anvil 10+10, spraying it from airplanes overhead.
Bennett is 62, with a slight frame and salt-and-pepper shoulder-length curls. She cherishes the Hockomock, not least for its vernal pools, small bodies of water that ephemerally appear every spring and dry up by fall. Countless species use them to breed; her favorite is the blue-spotted salamander.
“There is something meditative about vernal pooling,” Bennett says. “Putting on your waders and scouring the pools for life. I just love it.”
In the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, Bennett was stuck in bed, recovering from surgery to remove a baseball-size tumor that had been pushing against her brain. It was the first spring in 30 years she didn’t visit the vernal pools.
She’d kept working nonetheless, as the director of science policy at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a nonprofit government watchdog.
In addition to advocating against pesticides, she’d turned her attention to an enormous class of toxic, man-made chemicals called PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
PFAS compounds are characterized by their chains of carbon atoms bonded to fluorine atoms. The bonds are ultrastrong, ultrastable and paramount to their value in the manufacturing of semiconductors, firefighting foam, smartphones, medical devices, aircraft and solar panels.
They enable consumer products to better repel water (as in raincoats), fend off stains (carpets) and resist grease (microwave popcorn bags).
The persistence of those carbon-fluorine bonds, though, prevent PFAS from naturally degrading—earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.” In water, soil or blood, they just keep piling up.
The consequences, which can take years to materialize, can be devastating: Researchers have linked PFAS exposure to cancers, birth defects, infertility, high cholesterol and more.
In the summer of 2020, Bennett’s work on pesticides and PFAS unexpectedly converged. By then, public awareness of the dangers posed by PFAS was mounting. Researchers were finding the compounds in vastly more products than was previously understood.
The film Dark Waters had just recounted the decades-long PFAS poisoning of towns in West Virginia and Ohio and the subsequent cover-up by chemical giant DuPont. Government agencies were tightening water advisories based on the latest science, showing smaller and smaller amounts to be unsafe.
When the drinking water in Bennett’s town of Easton tested positive for the forever chemicals, it felt at first like a mystery. Easton wasn’t home to any of the obvious PFAS emitters that explained contamination elsewhere, such as firefighting training facilities, military bases or chemical plants.
Then, while still recovering from her surgery, Bennett thought of the Hockomock Swamp. In her mind, she overlaid a map of Massachusetts towns with PFAS-contaminated water onto a map of Anvil 10+10 sprayings. And then she felt a pang in her gut.
Over the next couple of months, a colleague of Bennett’s at PEER tracked down white plastic jugs of Anvil 10+10 and shipped samples of the liquid to a Pennsylvania laboratory called Eurofins for testing. The results confirmed Bennett’s suspicions: The pesticide contained PFAS compounds. And not just any PFAS.
Among them was PFOA, used for decades to make countless products, including DuPont’s Teflon nonstick cookware. It belonged to a subclass called long-chain PFAS, compounds found to be so dangerous that the US Environmental Protection Agency had moved to effectively ban them in 2015.
Bennett alerted state officials, who ran their own tests confirming the results and notified their federal counterparts. The EPA started an investigation.
Clarke Mosquito, Anvil’s manufacturer, examined its supply chain and found no PFAS listed among its ingredients. Months passed; everyone was stumped.
In January 2021, the EPA publicly revealed what its testing of Anvil 10+10 had pinpointed as the source of the contamination: The chemicals were migrating into the pesticide solution from the walls of the plastic containers in which it was sold.
The containers had been “fluorinated.” This process, buried deep in the supply chain, strengthened the plastic by exposing it to fluorine gas. But it also generated PFAS compounds, which were leaching into the liquid stored inside.
The vast majority of PFAS were—and remain—virtually unregulated. By this time, though, the EPA had worked for years to cut off production of PFOA and similar long-chain PFAS for the sake of public and environmental health.
The discovery that fluorination continued to generate them anyway undermined the agency’s painstaking work and placed whomever was responsible in violation of US law.
The EPA eventually determined that just one company in the US was to blame: Inhance Technologies LLC. The Houston-based company was small, with $46 million in annual revenue in 2018 and only a few hundred employees.
Yet it had built a domestic monopoly in fluorination over four decades, and with 20 facilities worldwide, it was a dominant global player as well.
More than two-and-a-half years later, Inhance continues to fluorinate plastics, despite a demand from the EPA to stop and a lawsuit by the US Department of Justice.
The public, meanwhile, remains largely in the dark about the toxic PFAS generated in the process, even as the EPA has learned that fluorination’s reach goes far beyond mosquito spray.
Inhance doesn’t publicly disclose its customers but says it fluorinates more than 200 million plastic items every year. Those items touch virtually every facet of the US economy. They’re used to hold weedkillers, gasoline, household cleaners, cosmetics and shampoo.
It’s not just plastic bottles: Inhance treats caps, trigger sprayers, mascara wands, fuel tanks, syringes, the cold packs used to transport vaccines and the industrial-size drums that store bulk ingredients prior to bottling. Its customers include providers of water-treatment chemicals, manufacturers of medical disinfectant and co-packers of bulk fragrances.
Food companies and large soda companies have used Inhance for decades. A 2018 investor presentation seen by Bloomberg Businessweek listed some of the world’s most recognizable consumer brands as end users of the company’s treated plastics, including Bath & Body Works, Bayer, BMW, Estée Lauder, Husqvarna and L’Oréal.
Fluorinated plastics, and the PFAS they contain, are likely on store shelves everywhere and in every American home.
Fluorine gas is highly toxic, corrosive and noxious. It’s the most reactive element on Earth, and as such, it virtually never exists on its own.
It was first derived in 1886 from another gas, hydrogen fluoride, but industrial scale production didn’t take off until the 1940s to support the Manhattan Project’s development of the atomic bomb.
A chemist named Stephen Joffre later recognized the commercial practicality of the effect of fluorine on plastic. Joffre worked for Shulton, the inventor of Old Spice and other perfumes and toiletries.
A patent he won in 1957 cited the “surprisingly improved impermeability” and superior odor-trapping ability of fluorinated bottles of Old Spice aftershave lotion.
In 1983, William Brown and Edwin Ballard founded Fluoro-Seal, which later became Inhance Technologies. The pair had worked at a company then called Air Products & Chemicals, an industrial provider of fluorine gas with a minor interest in fluorination.
They saw a bigger opportunity: leveraging fluorination as a solution to problems that had arisen as the use of plastics grew. When stored in containers made of conventional plastic, certain liquids, such as solvents and gasoline, could permeate the walls.
The bottles and their labels would deteriorate and grow distorted, and fumes would evaporate out. Fluorinating plastic strengthened its barrier properties, allowing companies to harness the lightness and cheapness of modern packaging.
Air Products’ expertise was in-mold fluorination, which introduces fluorine gas as containers get made. Brown and Ballard seized upon a more profitable technique called post-mold fluorination, which exposes containers to the gas after they’re made.
That process has barely changed in the 40 years since.
Inhance’s direct customers are typically packaging suppliers. They send Inhance containers and other parts made primarily of high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, one of the most commonly used types of plastic. The company loads them into a heated reaction chamber the size of a one-car garage.
Pumps suck out the air to create a vacuum, and fluorine gas flows in. Fluorine atoms replace hydrogen atoms on the plastic’s surface, creating a Teflon-like layer a few microns deep, inside and out. Workers then remove the newly fluorinated plastics from the chamber and ship them back to the packaging suppliers or on to bottle fillers. Eventually they enter commerce.
As plastics increasingly replaced glass and metal, Brown and Ballard consolidated their market power by mass-producing fluorine gas in-house. That lowered costs, boosted profitability and erected a barrier to entry, ultimately leaving the company as the nation’s sole post-mold fluorinator of plastics.
Brown and Ballard began by serving the agricultural chemicals industry, then expanded to cosmetics, flavorings, fragrances, food storage, fuel tanks and pharmaceuticals. By 1999 the company had 11 US factories, as well as facilities, either jointly owned or licensed, in Australia, England, France, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia and Mexico.
By 2004, according to its website at the time, it pegged the number of bottles, containers and “articles of all shapes and sizes” it had treated at 1.5 billion.
In 2012, Brown and Ballard sold Fluoro-Seal to Arsenal Capital Partners, a private equity firm in New York. The company rebranded itself as Inhance and named Andrew Thompson, an operating director at Arsenal with a doctorate in polymer chemistry, as its chief executive officer.
In 2017, Thompson expanded the company’s reach to South America, and the following year Arsenal sold Inhance to Aurora Capital Partners, a private equity firm in Los Angeles. Today, Inhance presents itself as a leader in sustainability and touts how fluorinated plastics remain recyclable.
Although Inhance says it can treat multiple types of plastic, including low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and polyphenylene ether (PPE), it mostly fluorinates HDPE.
Used to make everything from milk jugs and cutting boards to underground pipes and toys, HDPE is versatile, usually opaque and more rigid than the average soda bottle, for example, which is typically made with polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, and cannot be fluorinated.
It’s unclear what share of HDPE produced every year gets fluorinated. Inhance has indicated that it treats 25 million pounds of “plastic packaging articles” annually, which would likely represent a sliver of total HDPE production.
Still, fluorinated plastics are ubiquitous. Inhance says it does business with more than 175 plastics suppliers and more than 500 brands. As of 2018, according to the presentation seen by Businessweek, the agricultural chemical industry generated the biggest share of sales, at 40%, while the consumer market accounted for 16%.
“Our first initial thought was: It’s everywhere, so we need to pay attention to this one, because this is literally going inside people’s homes”
During an April visit to the lobby of Inhance’s facility in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a shelf displayed dozens of empty containers, with signage indicating at least some had been fluorinated.
Among them were containers for shampoo, stain remover, gasoline, hand-cleaning wipes, hair-thickening oil, nail polish remover and juice.
A sign extolled the benefits of fluorination for household and beauty applications, including food storage, laundry detergent, dish soap, liquid foundation and face moisturizers.
It’s impossible for consumers to discern whether a given item has been fluorinated. The bottoms of HDPE containers are marked with a chasing arrows symbol surrounding the numeral 2.
Those markings indicate only the plastic’s recyclability, though. No markings or labels are required to indicate fluorination.
A scan of the ingredient list offers some clues. According to Inhance and companies that contract with it, fluorinated containers should be used to house shampoos and body washes that are organic or contain enzymes; liquid formulations with strong flavors or odors; and products made with essential oils, pine oil, lanolin and a widely used citrus derivative called d-limonene. But even that knowledge has its limitations.
Inhance fluorinates containers ranging in size from less than 2 ounces to 330 gallons. Even if a product isn’t housed in a fluorinated bottle at the point of sale, it or the base ingredients used to make it may have been stored in one deeper in the supply chain. Companies may not even be aware that they or their suppliers are using fluorinated plastic.
Jeff Landis, a spokesman for the EPA, says the agency “has not yet identified” PFAS contamination in any pesticide product beyond Anvil.
He declined to say whether it’s tested other pesticides, or any other product, housed in fluorinated HDPE. He also points out that “for some specific types of products, such as cosmetics, EPA does not have regulatory authority.”
A spokeswoman for Bath & Body Works confirmed it had used fluorinated plastics in the past but declined to comment on whether it still does.
A spokesman for Husqvarna wouldn’t address whether or not the company uses fluorinated plastic but said it’s “committed to comply with or exceed all environmental standards.” BMW didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Bayer and L’Oréal declined to comment.
Thompson, the Inhance CEO, initially agreed to answer written questions but didn’t respond to subsequent emails.
For decades most of what was known about PFAS, including their risks to human health, was kept secret by the companies that made them.
The term is now used to describe an ever-expanding class of chemicals: thousands of compounds with “diverse molecular structures and physical, chemical and biological properties,” according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. There’s no official count of how many exist, in part because there’s no universal definition.
What is known today about PFAS remains eclipsed by what is not. Modern labs can identify only a fraction of specific PFAS compounds. Advances in equipment and more sensitive testing methods, though, have brought more information into public view.
The list of consumer products now known to contain PFAS includes not just nonstick cookware and stain-repellent carpets but also school uniforms and menstrual products, ski wax and french-fry wrappers, dental floss and waterproof mascara.
The compounds have migrated into the bloodstreams of most living Americans and seemingly everywhere else researchers have thought to look: the umbilical cords of Taiwanese newborns, the breast milk of Swedish moms, chicken eggs in rural Maine, polar bears in Greenland, and even air and rainwater worldwide.
The passage of time has allowed researchers to amass the human population-level data needed to link PFAS exposure with various ill effects, such as cancers, that reveal themselves only after extended periods.
Although little to no research or toxicity data exist for most of the hundreds of PFAS in use today, long-chain perfluoroalkyl carboxylates are an exception. Researchers say their backbones, comprising seven to 20 carbon atoms, help make them particularly persistent and bioaccumulative and thus problematic.
(Short-chains, with fewer carbon atoms, are less well studied; results so far are disconcerting.) The most notorious long-chain is perfluorooctanoic acid, commonly known as PFOA or C8.
As portrayed in Dark Waters, it’s what sickened cows on a West Virginia farm downstream of a DuPont facility to the point that their teeth turned black, their organs turned green, and their mouths frothed with thick white goo before rendering the animals deranged, and then dead.
It’s what two DuPont employees worked with before giving birth to babies with disfigured faces and what lab monkeys were fed before growing so ill they had to be euthanized. Even trace amounts are so dangerous, the EPA now says, no level in drinking water is safe.
As it learned more about the dangers posed by PFOA, the agency in 2006 persuaded eight major PFAS manufacturers, including DuPont, to phase out US production and importation of the compound and its long-chain cousins.
By the end of 2015, officials believed they’d succeeded. Then they used the Toxic Substances Control Act, a landmark law passed in 1976, to ensure that none of these compounds would reenter the supply chain.
They did this by banning “significant new uses” until the agency reviewed the science to ensure such uses didn’t pose an “unreasonable risk to human health or the environment.”
The EPA solicited feedback from industry to learn about any known remaining uses of long-chain PFAS (largely by the semiconductor and small electronic component manufacturing industries) and declared them exempt from the law. The fluorination of plastics—unknown at the time by the EPA to generate long-chains—wasn’t exempted.
That ban had been in effect for just a few months when the EPA pinpointed fluorinated plastic as the source of the long-chains showing up in Anvil 10+10. To contain the immediate problem, officials threatened to go after Anvil’s manufacturer, Clarke, if it didn’t recall millions of dollars’ worth of product.
They told Massachusetts and 25 other states to stop using any existing stock “to minimize risks to human health and the environment.”
The scope of the newly identified risk posed by fluorinated plastics had yet to come into view, but officials were on guard: The agency had been excoriated for ignoring warning signs prior to the 2014 mass exposure to lead-contaminated water among residents in Flint, Michigan.
Court records show that on a call with Clarke and the US attorney’s office, Alexandra Dunn, an EPA assistant administrator, vowed that this PFAS incident wouldn’t be her “Flint, Michigan, moment.”
It was January 2021, and the Biden transition was underway. The EPA issued a subpoena to Inhance to gain a view into a company and an industry that it knew little about. Inhance responded by providing information about fluorination and business details.
But in a Feb. 8 letter, obtained by Businessweek in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, Inhance denied that its process was responsible for the levels or types of PFAS identified by PEER’s or the agency’s testing.
As winter turned to spring, the EPA was only beginning to understand how widespread the use of fluorinated plastics had become, records released by the agency show. It had determined that as much as 30% of all rigid packaging for North American crop protection was fluorinated.
But as detailed in an EPA “strategy” memo, basic questions had yet to be answered, such as “What are the types of plastic containers that are typically fluorinated?” and “Who is doing the fluorination?”
The answers weren’t initially clear, partly because packaging companies that sell fluorinated containers rarely reveal that they outsource their fluorination to a single US company, Inhance.
Meanwhile, staff compiled lists of relevant trade groups, met with the Household & Commercial Products Association, and pursued meetings with “larger companies who are likely to understand or want to understand the scope of fluorination of their product containers,” the EPA memo says.
They talked with Unilever’s cleaning and personal-care brand Seventh Generation, which was “promoting efforts” within the cleaning products industry “to better understand the situation.”
The agency also continued to test at its analytical chemistry lab in Fort Meade, Maryland, and confirmed again the detection of restricted long-chain PFAS in fluorinated HDPE containers.
“Our first initial thought was: It’s everywhere, so we need to pay attention to this one, because this is literally going inside people’s homes,” says a former official who worked at the EPA at the time and requested anonymity to speak freely. “We were very, very concerned—it became an extremely high-level concern.”
EPA staff also conferred with the US Food and Drug Administration, which had jurisdiction over regulating chemicals in food packaging. The FDA had greenlighted the use of fluorinated plastic under specific parameters in 1983, long before it was widely understood that PFAS could cause harm.
In August the FDA sent a letter to the food and beverage container industry notifying it of the PFAS-in-pesticide incident.
“We are concerned that such containers could also be used in contact with food,” it wrote. (Inhance later said in a statement that its fluorinated HDPE containers “are not used as packaging for consumer food,” and less than 1% “are used by the food industry for additives or similar products.”)
Later that fall, the agency adopted its “PFAS Strategic Roadmap,” which outlined “bolder new policies to safeguard public health, protect the environment, and hold polluters accountable.” It aimed to reduce PFAS use and minimize exposure to avoid contributing to the existing, and already enormous, “environmental load.”
Inhance, meanwhile, kept forging ahead. It replaced an old factory in St. Louis with one that boosted capacity, citing “dramatically” increased demand.
In March 2022, more than a year after determining fluorinated plastic was the cause of the pesticide contamination, the EPA sent a formal “Notice of Violation” to Inhance.
According to a copy obtained through a public records request, the letter told the company it was breaking US law and “must immediately cease the manufacture” of long-chain PFAS. In practical terms this meant either figuring out how to fluorinate without generating the compounds or ceasing fluorination altogether.
The agency also sent an open letter to the plastics industry, warning of the potential for banned PFAS in plastic containers.
Inhance responded in an April letter, telling the EPA that it was “pleased to confirm” that it had made changes to its fluorination process that resulted in no long-chain PFAS being “imparted.”
But in the months that followed, as Inhance submitted more information, the agency remained unconvinced.
That additional information, court documents show, failed to “support a determination” that Inhance’s new process didn’t generate long-chain PFAS, as the company had claimed.
Still, to customers that summer, Inhance executives denied there was a problem and downplayed the matter. “Our technology does not impart any of these chemistries that the EPA is concerned about and never has,” Jad Darsey, vice president of packaging, said in an August webinar.
Regardless, added Rich Eichacker, a vice president of sales, PFAS are “in everything we know of today. …It’s in your laptop, your cellphone, it’s in your kids, it’s in your dog, it’s in your water that you drink. If we were to get rid of all PFAS species today, life would cease to exist as we know it.”
Days before 2022 drew to a close, the company filed hundreds of pages of regulatory documents in a belated attempt to obtain EPA approval for its fluorination process, even as it refused to stop fluorinating while the agency reviewed them, as the law requires.
In the filings, company representatives told a much different story: When it came to the “problem” of fluorination’s generation of nine different types of long-chain PFAS, including PFOA, Inhance could find “no easy solution.”
Despite its recent process changes, “unfortunately, an apparently unavoidable aspect of fluorination of HDPE containers may be the unintentional formation of [long-chain PFAS] in small amounts,” Inhance wrote. The company acknowledged that some of the compounds “may migrate into the contents of those containers.”
Inhance also argued in the documents that the unintentionally formed long-chains “qualify as impurities,” making them exempt from the law. The amounts remaining are so small, the company said, they don’t present an “unreasonable risk.”
(In a recent press release, Inhance equated the total amount of PFAS it generates annually “to the weight of a few grapes.”)
Some of the testing Inhance cited in its regulatory filings was conducted by Pace, a lab company partially owned by Aurora Capital, the same private equity firm that owns Inhance.
Meanwhile, the company kept on fluorinating plastics, insisting it was exempt from the law that would otherwise require it to stop. The EPA was running out of options.
Agency attorneys had been conferring with the Justice Department, and on Dec. 19 the department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division took the unusual step of escalating the EPA’s cause.
In a complaint filed against Inhance in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the Justice Department warned that Inhance’s manufacturing “may present an unreasonable risk of injury” to human and environmental health.
It asked the court to find the company in violation of the Toxic Substances Control Act for producing multiple long-chain PFAS in the past and for continuing to do so without prior clearance.
Inhance pushed back again. Not by denying that fluorination generated PFAS—instead, the company argued in legal filings that it shouldn’t be subject to the ban on “significant new uses” of long-chains because its fluorination process wasn’t new:
It had been around for 40 years. Attorneys even attached an Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word “new” as an exhibit.
Bennett first encountered PEER, the watchdog she now works for, in the 1990s. She was overseeing wetlands permitting and enforcement for the EPA’s New England office, and a superior tried to pressure her into changing a scientific opinion that killed plans for a container port on a small island in Maine. PEER helped her file a whistleblower complaint against the agency.
She reached a settlement with the EPA, joined PEER a few years later and now helps government employees file whistleblower complaints of their own.
That history informs her skepticism: Bennett was never going to be the type to hand off PEER’s test results revealing PFAS in a pesticide and trust the government to handle it.
One of the first people she emailed those results to, in the summer of 2020, was Graham Peaslee, a nuclear physicist at the University of Notre Dame who’d pioneered a novel technique for revealing the presence of PFAS in everyday items. “Wow,” he replied.
“That isn’t a good place to put one’s PFAS … not only for crop uptake but inhalation exposure too. Ugh.” She’d met him the year before, while researching the use of PFAS to make artificial turf. By then, Peaslee had identified the compounds in firefighting gear, footwear, makeup, fast-food packaging and more.
To Peaslee, as to Bennett and the EPA, fluorinated plastics represented a new and unsettling exposure route to the most dangerous PFAS. They soon learned, however, that inside the pages of obscure chemistry journals were clues dating back more than a decade.
In 2011, Amy Rand, then a doctoral student, and Scott Mabury, her supervisor in the University of Toronto’s chemistry department, identified for the first time the presence of long-chain PFAS leaching from fluorinated plastic.
They published their findings in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The pair obtained the samples of fluorinated plastics used in their experiments directly from Inhance (then called Fluoro-Seal).
Rand says the study didn’t make “the smallest of splashes” upon publication, nor did she send the results to Inhance. However, she says, at the time she published her work, the scientific community recognized that in theory, long-chain PFAS might result from fluorination. “It was fairly easy for me as an early grad student to look up” research describing that hypothetical, Rand says.
“It’s not complicated chemistry.” Inhance, which has long billed itself as employing the world’s leading fluorochemists, said in recent court filings that it wasn’t aware of the PFAS formation prior to the Clarke pesticide incident. The Justice Department has since characterized the issue of what Inhance knew and when it knew it as “disputed.”
Peaslee and Bennett kept in touch as the EPA continued its testing. The pair agreed that additional, independent data was necessary to push the science further.
Peaslee tapped a doctoral student working in his lab, Heather Whitehead, to analyze whether fluorinated containers could leach PFAS into food.
Whitehead and Peaslee bought fluorinated HDPE containers from a laboratory supply company, and organic olive oil, ketchup and mayonnaise in glass bottles from a national grocery store chain.
First they tested just the fluorinated containers and consistently found three short-chain PFAS compounds and eight long-chains, including PFOA.
They replicated the EPA’s findings that PFAS leached into water and methanol and added acetone to the list. They exposed samples of the olive oil, ketchup and mayonnaise to fluorinated plastic and let them sit for a week. Another batch sat for a week inside a 122F oven.
On March 6, Environmental Science & Technology Letters published their peer-reviewed results. While the levels of PFAS migration varied depending on the composition of the liquids inside the containers, concentrations increased up to 830% when stored in the heat.
PFOA and other long-chains migrated into the ketchup and mayonnaise and into the olive oil in smaller amounts. Whitehead and Peaslee’s study is now one of at least six showing that fluorinated containers leach long-chain PFAS. That’s in addition to Inhance’s own data, submitted to the EPA last year, showing the same thing.
Businessweek recently sent Peaslee bottles of shampoo from Bumble and bumble and OGX Beauty. When he pointed the beam of his particle accelerator at them to determine if the bottles had been fluorinated, both returned positive results.
Further testing is underway to verify if the contents contain PFAS. A spokeswoman for OGX parent company Kenvue Inc., said neither OGX nor its supplier had a “relationship” with Inhance; she declined to say whether the company used fluorinated plastics in the past.
A person familiar with Bumble and bumble’s business said a subcontract it had with Inhance ended in 2017. A spokesperson for Estée Lauder, which owns Bumble and bumble, declined to say whether any of its other brands currently use fluorinated plastics.
To Peaslee, one of the most important takeaways was this: Anything stored in a fluorinated container may expose humans to harm. “It’s just scarier the more we learn,” he says.
Turn It Over
Those of us without access to a particle accelerator can’t definitively determine whether a plastic container has been fluorinated. But here are a few steps to help you evaluate products on store shelves or in your cupboards.
Bennett and her husband, Don, moved to Easton, to an old farmhouse, in 1990. After a few years, their toddler daughter landed in the operating room to remove four intestinal polyps and later, numerous tumors throughout her body. Guilt gnawed at them: Could environmental factors have caused their daughter’s plight? Could it all have been avoided?
A recent visit to the LEED-certified home the Bennetts helped design and had built in 2006 offers a glimpse into the extraordinary lengths they go to every day to live out their environmentalist ideals and avoid exposure to toxins.
There are no carpets, window curtains or gas-burning stoves, and the walls, made of natural clay, are unpainted.
There’s nothing non-organic and virtually no plastic in sight. A lifelong vegan, Bennett makes her own coconut-and-cashew yogurt to avoid plastic; even the pink and yellow tulips in a vase on the dining table were grown organically.
When their daughter gets married this fall, Bennett will bring her own products for the makeup artist, given the prevalence of PFAS-laden cosmetics. “People don’t realize,” she says. “Just because it’s legal does not mean it’s safe.”
Bennett knows this level of hypervigilance may cause some people to question her sanity. She does so herself. Take, for example, a recent grocery run during which she encountered a new brand of butter. “I agonized over whether I should buy it,” she recounts.
“I bought it, after hemming and hawing for about 10 minutes. I opened it when I got home, was relieved to see zero plastic, but then wondered if they are using the PFAS-free parchment paper or not.
So now I have to reach out to the company and ask them. And I won’t know if they are telling the truth or not. Every purchase, every decision, is a balancing act. And I hate it. I don’t trust anyone anymore.”
In the early days following her discovery of PFAS in pesticide in 2020, Bennett felt relieved that the EPA acted quickly to have Clarke recall its fluorinated containers of Anvil 10+10. But by 2022, as Inhance continued to fluorinate, Bennett and her colleagues at PEER grew frustrated that the agency wasn’t aggressively containing what seemed like a clear public health threat.
So PEER joined with the nonprofit Center for Environmental Health (CEH) and hired Robert Sussman, an attorney and ex-deputy administrator of the EPA, to prod the agency to move faster.
In October, Sussman notified the EPA of their intention to sue Inhance, using a common component of federal environmental law known as a citizen’s suit.
A federal court described such suits in 2011 as a tool for the public to fight “agency capture” and “push for more vigorous law enforcement even when government agencies are more inclined to compromise or go slowly.” The tactic worked: The Justice Department’s case followed soon thereafter.
A few months later, in March, the EPA proposed the first national limits on PFAS in drinking water. The agency recommended a maximum limit for PFOA and another long-chain at four parts per trillion. (One part per trillion is equivalent to one drop in 20 Olympic-size swimming pools.)
The EPA based that on the latest science labeling PFOA as a likely carcinogen, meaning any amount of consumption above zero could increase the risk of developing cancer. Drawing such a line in the sand, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said, would “prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-related illnesses.”
Bennett and Sussman point to that determination when criticizing the government for not pursuing Inhance more expeditiously.
If there’s no safe amount of PFOA to consume via drinking water, they say, logic would dictate that there’s also no safe amount in mayonnaise or shampoo or body wash or stain remover or paint thinner—or any of the countless products stored in containers fluorinated by Inhance.
According to an analysis produced by Bennett and Sussman and submitted to the EPA, PFOA has been consistently found in extracts and solvents in fluorinated containers in the parts-per-billion range, at levels from 33 to 1,123 times higher than the proposed limit for drinking water.
PEER and CEH now have plaintiff-intervenor status in the Justice Department’s case, giving them the power to file motions. They recently asked the court to issue an injunction that would force Inhance to immediately stop fluorinating.
They’ve also pressed the EPA to reject Inhance’s bid for agency clearance to continue fluorinating (which is still pending) and brought the issue to the attention of Congress.
A dozen House members have written to the EPA, calling the agency’s review of that bid “a major test” of its mandate to protect the public from harmful chemicals.
Sussman remains baffled that the EPA pursued a single pesticide brand for using fluorinated plastic but has remained silent on its use by myriad consumer brands to which Americans have far more exposure.
Court documents indicate the EPA obtained from Inhance, in late 2022, a list of all its customers, the intended uses of its fluorinated containers and the total number of treated containers going back five years.
The agency declined to provide the list to Businessweek, citing its designation as “confidential business information.” “The EPA has a rich and detailed understanding of the products that use fluorinated containers,” Sussman says. “They’re in effect keeping the public in the dark.”
“Stopping these processes bankrupts Inhance, to put it as bluntly as I can”
It’s impossible, of course, to undo the decades of human and environmental exposure to PFAS. But researchers say it isn’t too late to stop making the problem worse. They’ve begun to categorize the essentiality of various PFAS uses and to identify alternatives. One recent study, for example, considers the use of PFAS in the production of semiconductors as currently essential, given the absence of suitable alternatives.
Their use in bicycle lubricants and household cleaning products, however, is not, because non-fluorinated alternatives exist and are just as effective. Ultimately, they say, innovation should lead to a future so full of safer options that no PFAS are necessary.
The Biden administration cited that framework in a March 2023 report when declaring, “the long-term goal is to eliminate PFAS in all sectors to the maximum extent possible.”
Are fluorinated plastics essential? Inhance cites its customers’ reliance on the treated containers to comply with various regulations, including those designed to ensure the safe transport of chemicals.
In regulatory filings, Inhance says the risk of toxic chemicals evaporating or leaking from non-fluorinated containers is “much greater” than the “limited risk” posed by its PFAS production.
“Unless the nation completely shifts to metal or glass containers,” the company wrote, “fluorination needs to remain an available technology.” If fluorination doesn’t remain available, the company warned in court filings, the resulting “supply chain bottleneck would significantly derail the national economy.”
Competitors counter by pointing out that fluorination isn’t the only way to strengthen plastics. Kevin Callahan, chief operating officer at Charlotte, North Carolina-based BP Polymers LLC, for example, says his company has, since 2012, offered a nylonlike compound called Kortrax that gets added to plastic resin as it’s being extruded and molded.
He says his business has grown as former Inhance customers, including Clarke Mosquito, switch to his product. Other alternatives, he says, include ethylene vinyl alcohol and a “nano-based barrier resin” manufactured by LG Chem in South Korea.
There’s another way, too, that Inhance argues fluorination is essential—as in, for the survival of the company. Putting an end to it would effectively bring its business to a “crashing halt,” Inhance has warned in court filings.
“Stopping these processes bankrupts Inhance, to put it as bluntly as I can,” said Cate Stetson, a partner at Hogan Lovells, representing Inhance at a recent hearing. “This will put this company out of business.”
The Justice Department suit adds to an explosion of recent litigation targeting not only the base manufacturers of PFAS (like 3M Co. and DuPont) but also those that make products in which PFAS appear, intentionally or not.
Chris Ayers, a partner at New Jersey law firm Seeger Weiss, recently filed a proposed class action against L’Oréal after finding various PFAS, including PFOA, in several of its waterproof mascara lines.
That’s despite a separate legal settlement reached in 2021 that forced the company to reformulate its makeup products without the intentional addition of PFOA. The current source of the PFOA hasn’t been determined, Ayers says.
But internal documents seen by Businessweek contain at least some clues pointing to Inhance: It has named L’Oréal among its end users and elsewhere notes that it fluorinates mascara wands and tubes.
Last year, Clarke filed a lawsuit in Illinois state court seeking to recoup substantial losses incurred by the recall of PFAS-contaminated pesticide containers; the suit named Inhance and Clarke’s plastics suppliers as defendants. Clarke declined to comment for this story.
If even a fraction of companies using fluorinated containers pull their products from the market and similarly seek legal recourse, potential liabilities could inundate Inhance—accomplishing what the US government so far has been unable to.
Slow-moving dangers like PFAS—the kind that lack evidence of immediate and acute harm—can be the hardest for society to appreciate. This often leaves Bennett feeling as if she’s screaming into a void.
The progress being made in her hometown of Easton to address the PFAS in its drinking water, though, brings her some relief. There, officials sought to identify what caused the contamination by commissioning an independent report.
It cited the spraying of PFAS-laden pesticide among potential factors; others included the presence of a landfill, a rubber company and a shoe factory, all long closed.
The town of 25,000 also installed a free filtered-water station and approved spending more than $10 million to build three filtration plants. Water rates increased 30% to pay for them, says Connor Read, who’s been Easton’s town administrator since 2017 and also serves on Massachusetts’ PFAS task force.
“It’s been expensive for the public, it’s been an enormous time commitment from public works, and it’s been a real challenge,” he says. “And we don’t expect it to go away anytime soon.”
Town officials also discovered that the fire department had long used PFOA-containing firefighting foam and joined hundreds of municipalities nationwide in multidistrict litigation suing manufacturers of that foam, including 3M and DuPont; settlement negotiations are ongoing.
There’s another thing, too, that’s brought Bennett relief: Her brain scans continue to be clear. She travels to Boston to get them as part of a monitoring program that began after surgeons removed her tumor, which turned out to be a rare and benign hemangioblastoma.
Her doctors screened her for 84 genetic mutations that might have explained its cause and found nothing, leaving environmental risk factors at play.
Such factors are hard to isolate, of course. Bennett can’t prove that PFAS exposure caused her tumor. But she isn’t willing to rule it out.