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3M to stop making PFAS ‘forever chemical.’ Michigan asks what took so long?

health advisory
Clark’s Marsh, a tributary of the Au Sable River near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, has high concentrations of PFAS. The levels prompted warnings about fish and deer consumption. (Bridge photo by Paula Gardner)
  • 3M discovered two common types of PFAS after World War II, manufacturing them for decades in hundreds of products 
  • Legal and regulatory changes are costing the company billions, as states and people affected by PFAS contamination sue
  • After standing behind its PFAS production amid scrutiny, the company now says it will halt production

Global chemical and consumer products maker 3M — which has paid out $2 billion to states in water contamination lawsuits and faces more challenges, including in Michigan — will halt production of PFAS chemicals and eliminate them from its many products by 2025.

The Minnesota-based company [NYSE: MMM] announced the change Tuesday, saying the move was influenced by regulatory changes regarding the so-called “forever chemicals” used in consumer products and industrial applications, despite their adverse health effects on people.

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The decision is “the right one (to make) but long overdue,” U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Ann Arbor, told Bridge Michigan in a statement. 

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“We have known the harms of PFAS chemicals for decades,” said Dingell, who successfully pushed for stronger federal standards for the chemicals, which use the bond between carbon and fluorine to create a moisture barrier. The chemicals are used in hundreds of products because of their effectiveness as a coating and water repellant. 

“But the more we study and find it in our communities, the clearer it becomes what an urgent public health threat these chemicals are, and that we must move quickly to address them.”

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Michigan has 233 PFAS sites, which is determined by at least one groundwater monitoring well exceeding state cleanup criteria.  (From Michigan GIS maps)

There are an estimated 5,000 versions of the per- and polyfluorinated chemicals, the vast majority of them unregulated. But dangers in the most common among them — even in barely measurable amounts — include links to cancer, thyroid issues and other health conditions.

Exposure paths are still being determined. While many experts are concerned about the chemicals’ presence in waterproofed clothing and home goods, food wrappers and cosmetics, most regulation so far has focused on PFAS in drinking water, and the groundwater used as a source for community water supplies.

“PFAS are effectively permanent poisons once they’re released into the environment,” said Dan Brown, planner at the Huron River Watershed Council in southeast Michigan. 

3M, based in Minneapolis, said its decision “is based on careful consideration and a thorough evaluation of the evolving external landscape.”

State and federal responses to the chemicals include increasing regulatory oversight, something that Michigan escalated in 2017 after activists in Oscoda and in the Rockford area north of Grand Rapids pressed officials to address the significant contamination becoming apparent in both communities. 

Michigan formed a task force, initiating water testing and setting standards for some types of the chemicals, including in municipal drinking water. Today, Michigan has 233 confirmed sites with PFAS contamination.

The state sued 3M among several other chemical manufacturers in 2020 to recoup the cost of cleanup. The cases have been consolidated with other suits pending in U.S. District Court in South Carolina.

Because 3M for years resisted making changes relating to PFAS, the news that it would cease production was greeted by environmentalists as a positive move.

“They saw the writing on the wall: PFAS cleanups will soon be expanded, and the company may be financially responsible for their years of polluting one day,” said Megan Tinsley, water policy director with the Michigan Environmental Council. “We hope other companies will follow suit out of goodwill, not bottom lines.”

However, some are skeptical about 3M, since CEO Mike Roman still maintained on Tuesday that “PFAS can be safely made and used.”

“Talk is cheap,” said Brown, of the Huron River Watershed group. “We need to see real action from PFAS producers, and we need assurances that these companies simply won't replace toxic chemicals with other toxic chemicals.”

The move to regulate PFAS accelerated this summer when the Environmental Protection Agency announced it wanted the two most common PFAS chemicals — PFOS and PFOA — and their offshoots to be designated as hazardous substances under federal Superfund laws. 

The move was a signal that contamination was about to get more costly for companies tied to PFAS discharges, with the EPA saying one goal was to make it easier to force polluters to pay for cleanup.

The EPA also said in November it expects to substantially expand oversight of PFAS when the agency added a group of the chemicals to a list of 66 contaminants proposed to be added to the Safe Drinking Water Act

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PFAS foam in waterways is a sign of high levels of the contaminant. The foam forms as waves churn the water. (Jana Shea / Shutterstock.com)

The EPA “is focused on holding responsible those who have manufactured and released significant amounts of PFOA and PFOS into the environment,” the agency said in a news release. 

Among those companies is 3M, whose scientists discovered PFOS after a lab spill in the 1950s, turning the discovery into its Scotchgard product. The trademarked water repellent was branded as a water shield for fabric, and used in consumer goods like clothing, furniture and carpeting. Industrial uses for the chemical included preventing other chemicals from circulating in the air and suppressing fires when used in foam sprayed on open flames. 

Four years earlier, 3M had discovered PFOA, which it began selling to DuPont, which used it in production of Teflon — based on yet another type of PFAS — for cookware and industry.

Documents released during years of litigation over the past decade show that 3M knew that PFAS would accumulate in people’s blood and was toxic, according to reporting by The Intercept in 2019.

As scrutiny on PFAS grew over the past several years, 3M, valued at about $69 billion, faced mounting legal challenges in other states. Most recently, California became the 16th state to file suit against 3M and other companies in November. 3M closed a plant in Belgium in November 2021 as Europe also targeted chemicals with more stringent regulations. 

Litigation against 3M and Rockford-based Wolverine World Wide resulted in a $59 million verdict for 1,700 plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, who said the companies were responsible for contaminated drinking water wells in the west Michigan community. The shoe manufacturer used 3M’s Scotchgard, but improperly disposed of tannery sludge. Nearly 300 other residents settled privately against the company.

Michigan’s surface finishing industry, which produces products such as chrome plating, once used PFAS to protect workers from toxic fumes, but most have found alternative products for that purpose, said Beth Gotthelf, an attorney at the  Butzel Long law firm in Detroit and vice president of the Michigan chapter of the National Association of Surface Finishers.

“It is not going to impact us because companies are already looking for other chemicals and already using other non-PFAS containing chemicals,” Gotthelf said Tuesday of 3M’s decision.

However, she said, many companies are still concerned about the chemicals. 

“The problem is, of course, from the historic use,” Gotthelf said, since the chemicals can still be present in equipment, or seeping into the groundwater at long-closed industrial sites. 

In 2019, after PFAS from the Wixom manufacturing company Tribar washed into the city’s wastewater treatment center and flushed into the Huron River, Michigan initiated the nation’s first PFAS testing of wastewater from active industry. 

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Legacy contamination remains an ongoing concern for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, said spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid Jr.

“While 3M is making positive decisions about the future of these dangerous products, we are very concerned with the legacy they have left,” he said. 

Additional litigation between 3M and the state also remains an issue, as the chemical maker is challenging state cleanup regulations for drinking water standards. Attorney General Dana Nessel, meanwhile, has filed suit against two companies that used PFAS, trying to force cleanup. The most recent is Domtar Industries, which operated in Port Huron. 

“We expect 3M to take responsibility for the damage caused by PFAS contamination and take action to remove PFAS from our environment, water supplies, and food supplies,” McDiarmid said.

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