3M exits PFAS business amid flurry of contamination lawsuits

PFAS, which include a group of more than 4,700 human-made substances, are known as “forever chemicals,” given the slow rate at which they break down in the environment. Photo credit: wolterke, stock.adobe.com

After some six decades and more than 3,000 lawsuits over claims of ground and water contamination, 3M has announced the end of production for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), or what have come to be known as “forever chemicals”.

Manufacturing of PFAS will cease by 2025, marking the end of a billion-dollar industry for Minnesota-based 3M, which manufactured chemicals for a long list of products, including non-stick cookware, fire retardants, as well as stain and water repellents, and medical technologies.

3M Chairman and CEO Mike Roman described the end of PFAS production in an announcement at the end of December, noting that it was “a moment that demands the kind of innovation 3M is known for,” while still acknowledging that PFAS “can be safely made and used.”

3M is not alone as a target for PFAS litigation, and its departure from the industry will not relieve it of liability for historic uses. The company has less current litigation underway than E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co., Chemours, and Kidde plc Inc.

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A California groundwater agency, in one state lawsuit, alleges that 3M “knowingly” polluted groundwater, as it had learned decades ago that PFAS essentially do not degrade.

PFAS, which include a group of more than 4,700 human-made substances, are known as “forever chemicals,” given the slow rate at which they break down in the environment. They are also considered known carcinogens.

3M makes some 60,000 products under several brands, including adhesives, abrasives, laminates, passive fire protection, personal protective equipment, window films, and paint protection films.

Last year, Canada released a proposed new Prohibition of Certain Toxic Substances Regulation, 2022, which would replace the 2016 Toxic Substances Regulation. While PFAS are still allowed for import, the proposed legislation could eliminate the various exemptions allowing PFAS substances in Canada under certain circumstances. The comment period for the proposal ended in summer 2022. The legislation refers specifically to perfluorooctane sulfonate, its salts and its precursors, known as PFOS, as well as perfluorooctanoic acid, its salts and its precursors, known as PFOA.

Environment and Climate Change Canada is still working on a draft document that intends to paint a wider picture about the state of PFAS and related chemicals in Canada, although the chemicals are not manufactured here.

Currently in Canada, the University of Waterloo is leading an interdisciplinary research team that hopes to unlock key information that will inform Canadian water systems about potential PFAS contaminants.

Additionally, a Vancouver firm is testing the use of electrochemical oxidation to destroy PFAS.

Exemplifying the potential harm of PFAS may be its presence in firefighting foams, as seen in North Bay, Ontario. In 2021, the city finalized a landmark agreement with the Department of National Defence, which will provide nearly $20 million over six years to remediate PFAS from Jack Garland Airport and contamination in Trout Lake and Lees Creek.

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