The 3M Company is facing a growing number of legal claims over PFAS, a group of allegedly toxic chemicals found in some firefighting foams.
Polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are manmade chemicals used to manufacture dozens of products, including aqueous film-forming firefighting foams, flame resistant fabrics, and Teflon cookware. Over time, PFAS accumulate in the environment, including groundwater, and the human body. Known as the “forever chemicals,” they never break down.
Two classes of PFAS — PFOA and PFOS – have been linked to cancer and other adverse health effects in studies involving lab animals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies both chemicals as “emerging contaminants,” and has established a “Lifetime Health Advisory” setting a recommended lifetime limit for exposure from drinking water.
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has also issued a warning regarding increased risks of breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, testicular cancer and kidney cancer related to the use of firefighting foam at U.S. military installations.
As of 2015, PFOA and PFOS were no longer manufactured or used in the United States. However, PFOA has been detected in the blood of 98% of the U.S. population. The chemicals are also found in the environment, especially near military bases and manufacturing facilities, where PFOA has seeped into local water supplies.
According to the Minnesota Star Tribune, the 3M Company as already reached a $850 million pollution settlement with Minnesota, and has agreed to pay $35 million to an Alabama water authority to clean up PFAS chemicals polluting the Tennessee River.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In recent months, various states, including New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Vermont and Michigan, have filed lawsuits alleging 3M allowed PFAS to contaminate the environment and harm residents.
Firefighting foam lawsuits have become the fastest-growing segment of the PFAS litigation. In fact, more than 130 such cases are pending against the 3M Company and other defendants in a multidistrict litigation currently underway in South Carolina federal court. Many of the claims seek compensation for cancer and medical monitoring on behalf of firefighters exposed to PFAS-containing foams.
3M has set aside an additional $235 million to cover claims related to the PFAS litigation. However, many observers believe the ultimate cost could exceed $10 billion.
“Our discussions with legal experts indicate that the remediation [and] cleanup costs — per severe state — could be [as much as $850 million],” on Citigroup research analyst recently wrote in a report to investors. But according to the Star Tribune, he also cautioned that “3M’s ultimate liability remains difficult to qualify [because] the science relative to PFAS’ actual impact on human health remains not well understood.”