In a shocking resignation letter dated March 28, 1999, a 3M environmental specialist accused the company of being more concerned with profits and image than environmental safety.
According to Richard Purdy who penned the scathing letter, PFOS “is the most insidious pollutant since PCB” and is the cause for a potential health crisis across the entire country, but most notably in the state of Michigan. PFOS is used in 3M’s ScotchGard stain-protection product line and isn’t the only PFAS chemical the company uses.
“It is probably more damaging than PCB because it does not degrade, whereas PCB does; it is more toxic to wildlife,” the letter reads.
“I have worked within the system to learn more about this chemical and to make the company aware of the dangers associated with its continued use,” Purdy wrote. “But I have continually met roadblocks, delays, and indecision. For weeks on end, I have received assurances that my samples would be analyzed soon — never to see results. There are always excuses and little is accomplished.”
A new report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Northeastern University has found that people in 43 states in the United States are exposed to drinking water contaminated with PFAS chemicals, of which PFOS is one.
Michigan has been hit hardest, with at least 46 sites where groundwater has PFAS levels above the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) lifetime health advisory guideline. According to Detroit Free Press, “The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has estimated PFAS could be found at more than 11,300 sites in Michigan” including 17 bodies of water with “‘do not eat’ fish advisories, or limitations on consumption of fish, because of PFOS contamination.”
The revealing resignation letter was recently obtained by the Detroit Free Press along with numerous internal 3M documents. The documents were obtained by then-Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson during a 2010 lawsuit alleging environmental contamination by 3M in the state of Minnesota. The lawsuit was settled for $850 million in 2018.
While PFAS chemicals have proved useful in numerous applications including cleaning products, waterproof clothing, nonstick cookware, textiles, grease-resistant food packaging, leather, paper goods, paint and more, the very same properties that make it so successful in these applications is what makes it so harmful to environment. PFAS compounds are nearly indestructible, with some referring to them as “the forever chemicals.”
But the same qualities that made PFAS compounds so useful also makes them almost indestructible in the environment, giving them the ominous nickname “the forever chemicals.”
Documents show that 3M was, in fact, aware of PFAS toxicity in lab rats all the way back in 1950. In the mid-1970s, health concerns arose after studies of fish, rats, and monkeys. The problems were so prevalent, that the company became aware of rising levels of PFAS compounds in their employees’ blood along with a link to testicular cancer. PFAS compounds were “found to be completely resistant to biodegradation” way back in 1978.
PFAS, which have been linked to a host of medical conditions such as cancer, thyroid problems, hormone imbalances, pre-eclampsia, learning disabilities and more, are found in the blood of almost 99% of Americans.
Documents obtained during the 2010 lawsuit revealed, not only this shocking resignation letter, but documents outlining 3M’s research into PFAS compounds. It turns out, 3M has been well aware for years that the compounds do not break down in the environment as expected, that they were found in both the blood of employees and the public, and laboratory rats and other animals were experiencing negative health effects.
Despite the revelations, 3M continued to sell PFAS compounds used in a range of products including things that touch both human skin as well as food. The company also neglected to inform the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
However, in the 1990s, the EPA became increasingly aware of researching showing the presence of PFAS compounds in the environment and reached an agreement with 3M in 2000 to phase out the use of PFOS by 2003. While 3M stopped using PFOA in 2000, other companies—including DuPont, the company responsible for Teflon—continued their use until an agreement with the EPA to phase them out by 2015.
According to Purdy’s 1999 letter, the environmental specialist argued years before any action was taken that 3M had already “waited too long to tell customers about the widespread dispersal of PFOS in people and the environment.”
“3M continues to make and sell these chemicals, though the company knows of an ecological risk assessment I did that indicates there is a better than 100% probability that perfluorooctansulfonate (PFOS) is biomagnifying in the food chain and harming sea mammals. This chemical is more stable than many rocks.”
“3M told those of us working on the fluorochemical project not to write down our thoughts or have email discussions on issues because of how our speculations could be viewed in a legal discovery process. This has stymied intellectual development on the issue, and stifled discussion on the serious ethical implications of decisions.”
Now, almost 10 years after the 2010 lawsuit in Minnesota, a new one in Michigan is using the very same internal documents.
Both current and former residents of the small midwest town of Parchment, Michigan are suing 3M and Georgia-Pacific over a toxic mess left in a landfill. PFAS compounds have leached from the landfill into the town’s water supply thanks to a paper mill responsible for manufacturing food safe paper coated with 3M’s product. As a result, thousands of current and former residents of the town were unknowingly exposed to high levels of the compound via municipal drinking water.
Nicholas Coulson, the Detroit environmental class-action attorney who is bringing the lawsuit against 3M said of the allegations against the company, “What we’re alleging that 3M did is really a crime against humanity.”
“It’s an absolute outrage that, in the name of profit, for decades they suppressed this information, and they continued to pump these chemicals out in incredible quantities into the natural environment. And the terrible result of that is that some communities, like Parchment, have had to bear the brunt of it.”
“3M had really, really sufficient notice to know that, one, these things don’t go away, they build up and build up and build up, both in the environment and the body, and two, that they cause really harmful effects,” Coulson added.
In his 1999 resignation letter, Richard Purdy concluded:
“I have worked to the best of my ability within the system to see that the right actions are taken on behalf of the environment. At almost every step, I have been assured that action will be taken—yet I see slow or no results. I am told the company is concerned, but their actions speak to different concerns than mine. I can no longer participate in the process that 3M has established for the management of PFOS and precursors. For me it is unethical to be concerned with markets, legal defensibility and image over environmental safety.”
Purdy wasn’t the only one to sound the alarm. The documents reveal that, dating back to the 1970s, numerous employees—including an employee named M.T. Case who author memos revealing toxicity, another who went by Dr. King, and Eric Reiner who worked in the company’s Environmental Engineering and Pollution Control division—urged the company to act on the research.
In a response to the Detroit Free Press, 3M seemingly bragged of their dedication to “research, technology, and clean-up” while calling the story gleaned from the internal documents “incomplete and misleading“:
“3M has dedicated substantial time and resources to researching PFAS and, to that end, we have invested more than $600 million on research, technology, and clean-up efforts related to PFAS. As a responsible steward of our community, we have a record of sharing information we learn with government regulators, the scientific community, as well as local and federal officials.
The small set of documents from the Minnesota litigation portrays an incomplete and misleading story that distorts the full record regarding 3M’s actions with respect to PFOA and PFOS, as well as who we are as a company. 3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS and we will vigorously defend our environmental stewardship.”
With 19 million people in 43 U.S. states currently exposed to drinking water contaminated with PFAS chemicals, the task of cleaning up these “forever chemicals” that are reportedly more stable than some rocks, is daunting. Companies like 3M that repeatedly prioritize profits and production of their products over people must be held accountable for the havoc wreaked on the environment, their customers, and their employees. While 3M did lose its $300 million/year revenue-maker ScotchGard after the 2000 agreement with the EPA, the loss only represented a mere 2% of 3M’s total sales. And while 3M bragged in their response to the Detroit Free Press of the $600 million spent on “research, technology, and clean-up efforts related to PFAS,” those amounts pale in comparison to the company’s profits, including the $7.9 billion earned in sales in the forth quarter of 2018 alone.
Time and time again, massive corporations that have caused harm—either knowingly or not—are tasked with clean-up costs or fines that barely make a dent in their bottomline. Without significant consequences for their actions, corporations like 3M will likely continue to prioritize profits over the health of the environment and even their customers. Perhaps the newest lawsuit against 3M will finally hold the company accountable to a degree that will impact the future.