PFAS, Cancer, 3M, and a Coverup that’s Decades Old

A logo sign outside of the headquarters of the 3M Company in St. Paul, Minnesota on October 24, 2015. Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar. AP Images.

Studies have shown that 3M-made “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or PFAS, pronounced ‘PEE-fas’)” found in Teflon, Scotchgard, and fire-fighting foam have been linked to a weakened immune response and cancer. As Tiffany Kary and Christopher Cannon report at Bloomberg Businessweek, the chemicals contaminate the ground water around the 3M plant in Cotton Grove, Minnesota creating an “underground plume” of pollution that’s 100 square miles in size. The biggest problem? 3M knew of the dangers and has been covering it up for decades.

Still, in Cottage Grove, where 3M first made the chemicals in bulk, there’s a sense of betrayal—stoked by a half-century of deceptions that came to light earlier this year with the airing of some of its internal documents. Here, as some parents of children with cancer say they’ve switched to bottled water and thrown away their Scotchgard and Teflon pans, it has become clear that a product once seen as a dazzling innovation may haunt the company for years to come.

Bailey, a 55-year old grandfather who had supported his mayoral career with stints at Radio Shack and Pawn America, considers himself nothing if not resourceful. After the health department’s new advisory, he declared an emergency, made plans to install filters on the town’s wells, and approached 3M for help. Not only did the company refuse, it said the chemicals didn’t come from its plant. It blamed a plastics fire from 15 years earlier and runoff from the firefighting foam used to quench it.

“That was such a line of you-know-what,” Bailey said. He countered with samples from wells that were upstream of the fire site yet still showed contamination. But 3M argued on, even questioning Cottage Grove’s fire chief.

“I was kind of surprised,” Chief Rick Redenius said. “The foam they were saying we used, we don’t carry.”

Bailey got the 18-foot-tall battery-shaped filters installed without 3M’s help, at a cost of several million dollars. A small construction crew, local businesses, and cranes raced to finish the project, and did so in 11 weeks. But just when they had put the ordeal behind them, in the fall of 2017, the news got worse.

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson had been building a case against the company for seven years, probing 3M’s internal records and studying local health data. Last November, she announced that areas around the Cottage Grove plant had elevated levels of some cancers including childhood cancers , and lower fertility. And, she said in court filings, 3M was to blame.

Scotchgard, which the company heralds as one of its greatest inventions, was created by accident in 1953, when a mixture of chemicals splashed on a lab assistant’s canvas shoes. Researchers noticed they repelled water and grease. Soon 3M was making Scotchgard in Cottage Grove—and producing thousands of gallons of wet waste. It buried some onsite and in three nearby towns: Oakdale, Lake Elmo and Woodbury. Documents released by Swanson show that 3M officials, even then, were trying to protect the company from getting sued.

“Various methods were discussed on how to protect our company from legal action resulting from the pollution of groundwater,” one employee wrote in a 1961 memo. That year, 3M’s geology department recommended incinerating the waste so it wouldn’t seep into the ground, but the company decided not to, the records show.

3M delayed the publication of numerous studies, meaning that outside scientists didn’t know about them for decades in some cases, according to Philippe Grandjean, a Danish scientist who has studied the chemicals and teaches at Harvard’s School of Public Health. In an expert witness report prepared for the state, he cites a 1975 finding that PFOS was in almost everyone’s blood, one in 1993 that lactating goats passed it on to their offspring, and another in the early 1990s that Grandjean said found immune system dysfunction among 3M’s own workers.

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