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Facing mounting legal battles, 3M quits forever chemicals

Facing mounting legal battles, 3M quits forever chemicals


It risks losing billions of dollars in lawsuits over PFAS pollution.

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A factory shrouded in haze.
A 3M plant during the pilot installation of a PFAS purification method in Antwerp on September 27th, 2022.
Photo by Nicolas Maeterlinck / BELGA / AFP via Getty Images

3M plans to phase out “forever chemicals” over the next few years, the manufacturing giant announced today. The announcement comes as the company faces a slew of lawsuits over its toxic legacy with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS or forever chemicals.

Specifically, 3M says it will discontinue the use of forever chemicals in its portfolio of products and “exit all PFAS manufacturing by the end of 2025.” Currently, 3M nets around $1.3 billion in annual sales of PFAS it manufactures. The chemicals have gone into many of its most iconic products over the years, including Scotchgard fabric protector. In the 1960s, the company also worked with the Navy to develop firefighting foam using PFAS.

“PFAS are critical in the manufacture of many products that are important for modern life, including medical technologies, semiconductors, batteries, phones, automobiles, and airplanes,” the company still says in its press release today — despite its pledge to leave forever chemicals behind.

The chemicals have gone into many of its most iconic products over the years, including Scotchgard fabric protector

For decades, PFAS have been widely used in manufacturing because of how hardy the chemicals are — a useful trait when making products water- and stain-resistant or developing a firefighting foam. It’s taken temperatures above 700 degrees Celsius (1,292 degrees Fahrenheit) to break the chemicals down — and even then, PFAS have been known to persist in the air after incineration.

So it’s no wonder that PFAS pollution has become so pervasive. Forever chemicals are found in soil, drinking water, and in human blood. It’s often found at low levels, and researchers are still trying to understand what that means for our health and environment. But bigger problems have cropped up for communities exposed to higher concentrations of PFAS at more contaminated sites like factories and military bases. Exposure to high concentrations of PFAS has been linked to greater risks of certain kinds of cancer, liver damage, increased cholesterol, and reproductive health issues.

That’s how 3M has gotten itself into legal troubles it faces now, in the form of some 2,000 lawsuits, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. The state of California, for example, filed suit against 3M and other manufacturers in November for continuing to make PFAS products despite allegedly knowing the dangers associated with them for decades. Minnesota filed a similar lawsuit against 3M alleging the company damaged drinking water and natural resources; it was settled in 2018. The company faces up to $30 billion in potential legal liability for the hundreds of products it has developed with PFAS over the better part of a decade, Bloomberg Law reports.

Facing that risk, 3M said in its announcement today that it “will continue to remediate PFAS and address litigation by defending ourselves in court or through negotiated resolutions, all as appropriate.”

Back in 2000, 3M announced that it would quit manufacturing two of the most common types of forever chemicals: PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). But 3M continued to use other kinds of chemicals within the PFAS umbrella, of which there are around 9,000 different types.

The company’s press release today doesn’t say what exactly will replace PFAS. “We have already reduced our use of PFAS over the past three years through ongoing research and development, and will continue to innovate new solutions for customers,” the announcement says.