Consumer products giant 3M announced Tuesday that it will stop making and using a ubiquitous class of long-lasting, hazardous chemicals that can pose health risks to millions of Americans.
“With these two actions, 3M is committing to innovate toward a world less dependent upon PFAS,” the release said.
Tuesday’s announcement comes as 3M is facing an onslaught of lawsuits from states and individuals who are claiming contamination from PFAS harmed their health. Bloomberg Intelligence estimates long-term legal liabilities could wind up costing the company $30 billion or more. 3M’s current annual net sales of manufactured PFAS are approximately $1.3 billion, according to the company.
Exposure to certain levels of PFAS chemicals has been linked to infertility, developmental issues or delays in children, and several types of cancer, among other health concerns. Despite these known risks to humans, the chemicals, which help make consumer goods resistant to water as well as stains and grease, continue to show up in products such as cosmetics, dental floss, food packaging and clothing.
The Biden administration has taken steps to regulate PFAS in various ways. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency said it would set enforceable drinking water limits on certain compounds.
Since then, the EPA has publicly warned that the chemicals pose a greater danger to human health than regulators previously thought. In August, the agency also proposed classifying two of the most common of these chemical compounds — PFOA and PFOS — as hazardous.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan tweeted Tuesday afternoon that “protecting people from PFAS pollution is one of my top priorities,” and he vowed “to hold polluters accountable and protect public health.”
Major U.S. manufacturers including 3M have long agreed to stop making PFOA and PFOS after their health risks became clear. 3M committed in 2000 to phase out the two chemicals, but it continued to use other types of “forever chemicals,” of which there are thousands with varying properties.
In Tuesday’s announcement, 3M argued the class of chemicals continues to be “essential for modern life.” The latest decision “is based on an evolving external landscape,” the company said, pointing to regulatory crackdowns as well as pressure from consumers and investors.
“While PFAS can be safely made and used, we also see an opportunity to lead in a rapidly evolving external regulatory and business landscape to make the greatest impact for those we serve,” 3M chairman and chief executive Mike Roman said in the news release.
The company did not say exactly how it plans to achieve its targets, noting, “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.”
John Rumpler, senior clean water director for Environment America, called 3M’s announcement “great news for clean water.”
“For the sake of our health and our environment, we hope 3M will phase out PFAS production before 2025 and that other companies will follow suit,” he said in a statement.
Others questioned the company’s motivation.
Erik Olson, a senior strategic director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview that 3M’s announcement almost certainly stems in part from the “massive liability” the company is facing.
“Virtually every American is walking around with PFAS in their bodies,” Olson said. “The handwriting is on the wall that continuing to make these chemicals is putting their shareholders and their company at risk.”
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Olson and other environmental advocates are hoping 3M’s decision to move away from PFAS chemicals sends a powerful signal to other companies to “follow suit and get out of this dangerous chemistry,” he said. But he is skeptical that will happen quickly.
“There is a risk that others will see a void to be filled,” he said.
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Dino Grandoni contributed to this report.