3M announced in mid-December that it is phasing out a number of harmful chemicals, but they are not going away.
Known collectively as per- and polyfluorinated substances, or PFAS, “forever chemicals” are used in everything from carpet to nonstick pans to dental floss. Chains of carbon-fluorine bonds are excellent at repelling stains, grease and water, and even extinguishing dangerous fuel fires. But they also do not decompose in the environment and stay in people’s bodies for years.
Research has linked the chemicals to developmental and immune issues, fertility issues, and some cancers.
Faced with a string of PFAS-related lawsuits it pioneered over the last century, Maplewood-based 3M said it will stop making and using them by 2025, including at its factory in Cottage Grove.
In the opinion of Rainer Lohmann, director of the University of Rhode Island’s STEEP lab and an authority on PFAS contamination: “The nightmare hasn’t really stopped.”
The persistence and global extent of pollution from chemicals will pose a sanitation challenge for years to come, researchers and environmental advocates said. They’re also worried that new manufacturers may step up to fill the void left by 3M, and say the company needs to contribute to environmental cleanup.
“While it’s great that they’re finally moving away from these chemicals after the pressure, the responsibility, the pressure from government regulators… they definitely shouldn’t get away with accountability,” said Melanie Benesh, US vice president of government affairs. Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organisation.
3M currently conducts cleanup efforts in connection with litigation and environmental enforcement. In 2018, he paid the state of Minnesota $850 million to settle a lawsuit regarding damage to natural resources, and before that he had to remove contaminated material from several landfills used by a chemical plant in the east subway. The company also signed an approval agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency this November to test and treat drinking water in a 10-mile area around the chemical plant in Cordova, Illinois.
It also faces ongoing scrutiny around the Cottage Grove facility, where an open investigation into water discharges is being conducted by the EPA and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. 3M first disclosed the investigation to investors in 2020.
MPCA spokesperson Andrea Cournoyer declined to comment on the investigation.
In an email, he wrote that the agency “welcomes” 3M’s plan to halt production and “will continue to hold 3M and other organizations accountable for PFAS pollution, as appropriate.”
3M spokesman Sean Lynch also declined to comment on the investigation.
In an email, he wrote that the company “will continue to meet its water management commitments, as well as improve PFOA and PFOS in certain locations where we manufacture or dispose of these materials.”
New technologies are being tested to clean PFAS, including a machine that the MPCA uses in the eastern subway, designed to concentrate the chemicals in the foam onto the water.
But there are still a few known ways to remove chemicals, and they’re so routinely found that researchers often refer to a “background level” found in most people’s blood.
“Wherever we find it, we basically know it was put there by someone or a process we created,” said Matt Simcik, professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Minnesota who has studied PFAS pollution for decades.
3M still grapples with the legacy of two of the oldest and best-studied formulations of chemicals, PFOS and PFOA. The company announced in 2000 that it would phase them out. But other companies like DuPont didn’t do that until much later. Chemicals are routinely found all over the planet today. A recent study revealed levels in rainwater so high that they exceeded the limits set by the EPA for drinking water.
“PFOS was largely a 3M product, and we still worry about it 20 years after they phased it out,” Lohmann said.
Simcik said the contamination problem is more complex than other leading pollutants such as PCBs. Hazardous organic chemicals were widely used in electronics, lacquers, and plastics until their production was banned in the United States in 1979. They tend to stick to particles, so over time some of the PCBs released into the environment in places like the Great Lakes settle in soils and are covered, Simcik said.
“That big piece is still there and buried, so it’s okay,” he said.
This is not the case with PFAS, which moves easily in water and is in constant contact with humans and animals.
And then there is the question of what can replace chemicals. Simcik and Lohmann were concerned about what the properties of the new chemicals might be.
3M did not disclose how it would replace the chemicals, which generate annual sales of $1.3 billion.
When asked if the company will test health or safety on PFAS replacements, Lynch replied, “3M is committed to innovating for a world less dependent on PFAS. 3M’s products are safe for their intended use.”
The other major manufacturer in the United States is Chemours, a byproduct of DuPont that uses various PFAS formulations in its line of Teflon products.
When asked if the company is considering leaving PFAS, spokesperson Cassie Olszewski said in an email, “Chemours is committed to fluorine chemistry and its power to enable world-changing technologies that help solve some of the world’s toughest problems.”
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Quotation: Despite phasing out 3M, problem clearing PFAS persists (2022, Dec 30), on Dec 30, 2022 https://phys.org/news/2022-12-3m-phase-out-problem- Retrieved from pfas.html.
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