By the end of 2025, 3M will stop making the “forever chemicals” that for decades have bedeviled the environment.
3M halted production of an earlier generation of the chemicals 20 years ago due to concerns over toxicity. On Tuesday, the Maplewood-based industrial giant said it would phase out all forms of the chemicals, called PFAS for short, as regulators worldwide take a tougher stance.
“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,” CEO Mike Roman said in a statement.
The chemicals — used for their non-stick and water-resistant properties in consumer products from frying pans to winter boots — do not break down in the environment. This has led to numerous contamination issues, including drinking water limits in some communities.
3M will “work to discontinue use of PFAS across our product portfolio by the end of 2025,” the company said.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, account for $1.3 billion in sales for 3M, or about 3% of total revenue. The chemicals are manufactured in Illinois, Alabama, Minnesota, Germany and Belgium. Together, the plants employ about 3,000 people, including 700 in Cottage Grove, Minn.
3M did not share details about potential impacts to jobs at the five plants, which generally make other chemicals too.
Wolfe Research analyst Nigel Coe calls Tuesday’s announcement “an important step toward a new 3M.”
“This step was inevitable in light of growing actions to bar PFAS products in many jurisdictions over the next decade,” Coe wrote. “These actions are relatively immaterial in a purely financial sense.”
The Environmental Working Group, which has long campaigned against PFAS chemicals, questioned the efficacy of 3M’s announcement.
“After telling everyone — their neighbors, their workers and their regulators — that PFAS are safe while poisoning the entire planet, 3M is now pledging to slink out the back door with no accountability,” Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, which has long campaigned against PFAS chemicals.
“No one should trust 3M’s commitment to the do the right thing,” he said.
3M pioneered PFAS in the 1940s. The chemicals eventually became the key ingredient in items from 3M’s Scotchgard fabric and carpet protection products to firefighting foam used worldwide on ships and at airports and refineries.
“3M will continue to remediate PFAS and address litigation by defending ourselves in court or through negotiated resolutions, all as appropriate,” the company said.
The avalanche of litigation facing 3M centers on two PFAS chemicals — PFOS and PFOA — that the company stopped making in the early 2000s.
Linked to cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility and other maladies, those chemicals were known as “long-chain” PFAS because they had a chain of eight perfluorinated carbon atoms.
The “short-chain” PFAS chemicals that 3M has been making since the early 2000s have fewer perfluorinated carbon atoms. The company says the short-chain PFAS are safe and less toxic, though there is research indicating they might carry environmental and health risks.
Short-chain PFAS chemicals linger for less time in the human body, said researcher Rainer Lohmann, director of the University of Rhode Island’s STEEP lab, which studies PFAS’ effects on health and the environment.
But Lohmann said it is also more difficult to filter short-chain PFAS out of drinking water.
“The inherent toxicity of the compound is probably not that different than the others,” he said. “It’s just that the impacts are going to be a little less, because they’re not [in our bodies] as long.”
In recent years, regulators in the United States and Europe have increased scrutiny of PFAS chemicals — including those currently in production.
Michael Regan, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, announced in October 2021 that the EPA would start pursuing a number of new rules.
The EPA has moved to include PFAS among the contaminants governed by the country’s Superfund law. The EPA also is exploring how to limit PFAS pollution and has proposed drinking water limits for four of the most well-known formulations of the chemicals.
The water limits are so low as to suggest almost no amount is safe for human consumption.
The EPA also has proposed deeming all PFAS compounds as “chemicals of special concern,” which would increase reporting requirements for PFAS makers. Chemicals of special concern are generally toxic, accumulating in the environment and in humans and animals.
Regan’s posture toward regulating the chemicals has been a major change from prior EPA leadership, which was frequently criticized by health and environmental advocates for moving too slowly.
Meanwhile, the European Union has laid plans that could restrict all PFAS production by 2025. And regulators in Canada, Australia and Asia are increasingly looking at limiting PFAS in drinking water.
Over the past two years, 3M has faced a regulatory crackdown in Belgium over past production of long-chain PFAS as well as current manufacturing of the short-chain version. To resolve its dispute with Belgian regulators, 3M has pledged to spend $600 million in PFAs remediation, including $300 million in July.
Philippe Grandjean, a Harvard University adjunct professor and co-leader of the PFAS lab at the University of Rhode Island, questioned how 3M and other manufacturers of the chemicals would contribute to the overall environmental cleanup.
“On behalf of public health, I don’t see this [halting PFAS manufacturing] as a generous decision by the producer of these toxic substances,” said Grandjean, who also served as an expert for Minnesota when the state sued 3M for PFAS contamination. “I see this as a financial, cut the losses decision.”
3M said that its own customers are increasingly interested in alternatives to PFAS chemicals. And the “challenges of managing” PFAS-based products “has increasingly weighed on our business results in recent years.”
The value of 3M’s stock has been halved since January 2015 when it hovered around $250. 3M shares closed Tuesday at $120.81. The prospect of massive legal liabilities from PFAS — as well as from earplugs made by 3M — have been a key factor weighing on the stock.
The earplug litigation centers on over 200,000 claims that 3M knowingly sold defective earplugs to the military, which 3M denies. 3M is facing scores of lawsuits across the country for alleged PFAS contamination.
As with the earplug suits, 3M’s PFAS liabilities could add up to tens of billions of dollars.
Top image: 3M headquarters in Maplewood, Minnesota. (Anthony Souffle/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)