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The chemical contaminant PFAs is emerging as a big problem in Michigan. Keith Matheny, Detroit Free Press
A 3M environmental specialist, in a scathing resignation letter, accused company officials of being "unethical" and more "concerned with markets, legal defensibility and image over environmental safety" when it came to PFAS, the emerging contaminant causing a potential crisis throughout Michigan and the country.
PFOS, one of 3M's chief PFAS products, "is the most insidious pollutant since PCB," Richard Purdy stated in his March 28, 1999, resignation letter, referring to a compound used in 3M's ScotchGard stain-protection product line, among other uses.
"It is probably more damaging than PCB because it does not degrade, whereas PCB does; it is more toxic to wildlife," he stated, adding that PFOS's end point in the environment appeared to be plants and animals, not soil and sediment like PCB.
PFAS foam floats along Van Etten Creek after being dumped from a storm pipe of water treated at a granular activated carbon GAC plant from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)
"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 stated in the letter, saying he was resigning effective April 6, 1999. "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."
Purdy's explosive resignation letter is just one of a large cache of internal 3M memos and documents obtained by the Free Press through public records law from the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office. Then-Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson obtained the internal documents from the Minnesota-based company after suing 3M in 2010 over its environmental contamination in the state. The company settled the suit last year for $850 million.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — PFAS — is the biggest emerging contaminant problem in Michigan. The nonstick compounds were used for decades, from the 1950s to the 2000s, in aqueous firefighting foam, industrial processes and a host of popular consumer products: Teflon nonstick pots and pans, ScotchGard stain protectants on carpets and upholstery; Gore-Tex water-resistant shoes and clothing, and more.
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."
Two of the most common and most studied PFAS compounds, known as PFOS and PFOA, have been linked to cancer; conditions affecting the liver, thyroid and pancreas; ulcerative colitis; hormone and immune system interference; high cholesterol; pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, and negative effects on growth, learning and behavior in infants and children.
PFAS can now be found in the blood of nearly 99% of Americans. It has even been found in polar bears in the Arctic Circle, as the chemicals have worked their way up the food chain from fish and seals.
Some 46 sites in Michigan are known to have groundwater with PFAS levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's lifetime health advisory guideline of 70 parts per trillion, a level above which a person consuming the water for a lifetime might expect health problems. And state officials have identified more than 11,000 sites in Michigan where PFAS was used and contamination may be an issue.
And it's not just the Great Lakes State's problem. In a new study, citing updated federal government data, the Washington-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group identified 610 sites in 43 U.S. states or territories known contaminated with PFAS, including drinking water systems serving 19 million people.
The documents obtained from the Minnesota Attorney General's office outline 3M's own research showing its PFAS compounds were not breaking down in the environment, were having negative health effects in laboratory rats and other animals — and that the blood of employees, and the public, had become contaminated with the compounds.
As these revelations occurred within the company, 3M continued to sell PFAS compounds for use in products worldwide: in ScotchGard stain protection, Teflon coating on cookware and other products, Gore-Tex water resistant shoes and clothing, sandwich wrapping paper and microwave popcorn bags, aqueous firefighting foam and other industrial uses.
For generations, 3M kept much of what it knew to itself, not informing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — or the public — until the late 1990s, when the EPA began taking notice of the rising research outside of 3M showing PFAS's persistence in the environment. The company in 2000 announced an agreement with the EPA to voluntarily phase out its use of PFOS by 2003. It also halted its manufacture of another popular PFAS compound, PFOA, in 2000, but other manufacturers, including DuPont in its Teflon products, continued utilizing PFOA until a subsequent agreement with the EPA to phase out its use by 2015.
Nicholas Coulson, an environmental class-action attorney from Detroit, is using the 3M internal documents from Minnesota in his own lawsuit. Coulson represents current and former residents of the city of Parchment, in Kalamazoo County, in a lawsuit against 3M and Georgia-Pacific, final owner of a long-standing paper mill in the city that made food-wrap paper coated with 3M's PFAS. The mill left a toxic mess in its nearby landfill, and PFAS compounds leached from it into Parchment's municipal water supply. Thousands in the city have been exposed to high levels of the compounds in their drinking water for an unknown number of years.
"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," Coulson said. "And the terrible result of that is that some communities, like Parchment, have had to bear the brunt of it."
Some 46 Michigan locations have PFAS compounds in groundwater that exceed the EPA's 70 parts-per-trillion health advisory level. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has estimated PFAS could be found at more than 11,300 sites in Michigan — fire stations, municipal airports, military sites, refineries and bulk petroleum stations, wastewater treatment plants, old landfills, and various industrial sites.
Seventeen rivers, lakes, streams and ponds throughout Michigan have "do not eat" fish advisories, or limitations on consumption of fish, because of PFOS contamination, including Saginaw Bay, Lake St. Clair and portions of the Au Sable, Huron, Flint, Saginaw and St. Joseph rivers.
Purdy, in his resignation letter to 3M, listed repeated instances when his urgency on PFOS was met with delays and unkept promises that the company would conduct further, clarifying studies. He referenced an "8e report" 3M had made to the EPA in May 1998. Under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, Section 8e, a chemical manufacturer who discovers its chemical poses "a substantial risk of injury to health or the environment shall immediately inform the (EPA) Administrator of such information."
"There is tremendous concern within EPA, the country, and the world about persistent bioaccumulative chemicals such as PFOS," Purdy stated in the letter.
"Just before that submission we found PFOS in the blood of eaglets — eaglets still young enough that their only food consisted of fish caught in remote lakes by their parents. This finding indicates a widespread environmental contamination and food chain transfer and probable bioaccumulation and bio-magnification. This is a very significant finding that the 8e reporting rule was created to collect.
"3M chose to report simply that PFOS had been found in the blood of animals, which is true but omits the most significant information."
Purdy later in his resignation letter added that "3M 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."
"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."
It was 1975, and he and colleagues at other universities had discovered unusual levels of fluorine in human blood — blood bank contributions from donors in both Texas and New York had it in sample after sample. It couldn’t be explained by naturally occurring fluorine, or by the fluoridation of water.
Guy reached out to 3M, maker of fluorinated compounds that had become ubiquitous in waterproofing, stain-guarding and nonstick consumer products, to see what the company thought.
In a confidential, internal company message between 3M officials, one, G.H. Crawford, suggested to “plead ignorance,” and wondered whether they could spin it as a helpful health benefit.
“On the positive side — if it is confirmed to our satisfaction that everybody is going around with fluorocarbon surfactants in their bloodstreams with no apparent ill effects, are there some medical possibilities that would bear looking into?,” such as whether the slippery substances improved arterial sclerosis or kidney blockage, he asked.
Crawford further suggested conducting animal studies along those lines that could later prove useful “from a defensive point of view.”
The internal company documents show that as evidence mounted of PFAS compounds persisting in the environment and causing health problems in animal studies, company officials took no action to inform the EPA or the public:
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that 3M shared those concerns with the EPA. The EPA in 2006 cited 3M for 244 violations of the Toxic Substances Control Act, accusing 3M of failing to notify the agency about new chemicals and of late reporting of "substantial risk information." 3M’s fine was $1.52 million — about 0.3% of its annual sales revenues from PFAS compounds.
"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 said.
"3M continued to make and sell (PFAS) for all of these purposes, while ignoring — or even actively suppressing — the risks."
3M responded to Free Press requests for an interview with an emailed statement: "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."
Though 3M's 2000 agreement with the EPA to phase out PFOS meant the loss of its popular ScotchGard products — a $300 million a year revenue-maker — that still represented only 2% of the chemical giant's total sales. The company in the fourth quarter of 2018 reported $7.9 billion in sales, its products include Scotch tape and Post-It Notes.
A confidential 3M interoffice memo dated May 10, 1978, described a meeting that occurred two days earlier, in which company officials discussed the results of studies in which laboratory rats were exposed to three different PFAS compounds over 90 days.
"After a review of the data and a review of the March 16, 1978, EPA guidelines for reporting substantial risk under the Toxic Substances Control Act, it was decided that the toxicity of FC-95, FM-3422 and FC-143 does not constitute a substantial risk and should not be reported at this time," the memo states.
Other 3M documents show FC-95 and FC-143 were PFOA-containing industrial surfactants sold by the company under the Fluorad brand. How the third compound was sold and used is unclear.
A year later, in a 3M memo dated July 6, 1979, an employee named M.T. Case sounded an alarm to colleagues.
"I believe it is paramount to begin now an assessment of the potential (if any) of long term (carcinogenic) effects for these compounds, which are known to persist for a long time in the body and thereby give long-term chronic exposure," he stated.
In a 2005 study, Marvin T. Case was listed as being with 3M's medical department in Corporate Toxicology and Regulatory Services.
In 1981, citing internal research showing PFAS compounds were causing birth defects in rats, 3M moved 25 female employees "of childbearing potential" off production lines at its Decatur, Alabama, plant "as a precautionary measure."
Another document describes a crisis between 3M and one of its principal clients, DuPont, which used 3M's PFOA in the manufacturing of DuPont's Teflon products, including nonstick cookware.
DuPont was worried that because of internal research findings of increased incidences of tumors in rats fed the PFAS compound FC-143 — PFOA — over 24 months, "they may be obliged under their policy to call FC-143 a carcinogen in animals."
Though a 3M researcher identified as "Dr. King" acknowledged "the increased incidence of mammary and testicular tumors under these particular experimental conditions," he maintained his conclusion that "FC-143 is not considered to be carcinogenic."
A large-scale health study of people exposed to PFOA from long-term releases from a DuPont Teflon factory in West Virginia, done as part of a $671 million lawsuit settlement between DuPont and spin-off company Chemours and thousands of class-action litigants, concluded in 2012 "that there is a probable link between exposure to C8 (also known as PFOA) and testicular cancer and kidney cancer."
Another, undated, document, "Draft Memorandum on Fluorochemicals in Human Blood," described how 3M employees were documented to have PFOS, a PFAS compound, in their blood serum — even employees who were not exposed to the compound on the job. Company researchers then examined blood from 21 different U.S. blood banks, including one in Grand Rapids, and again found PFOS.
The researchers then expanded the scope, looking at blood samples taken earlier in the 1990s, and in the '80s, '70s, '60s, from places such as Sweden and the rural provinces of China. The compounds showed up in the blood again and again. The only sample groups to come up with no detection of PFOS: 10 vials of blood taken from U.S. military recruits during the Korean War era, from 1948 to 1951.
"Organic fluorine has been noted in human serum since the late 1960s. We have now identified PFOS as a part of this organic fluorine fraction," the memo states.
"PFOS related materials were not produced commercially prior to 1948, and only in small quantities for several years thereafter. It is not surprising that samples from 1948 to 1951 show undetectable levels. There was clearly an increase 20 years later."
In a March 29, 2008, slideshow presentation, John Butenhoff of 3M's medical division outlined the value in the company continuing to study the toxicological effects of its legacy fluorochemicals One of the bullet items was "Defensive Barriers to Litigation."
Jennifer Field, a professor of environmental and molecular toxicology at Oregon State University, served on the science advisory board for former Gov. Rick Snyder's Michigan PFAS Action Response Team. She has been a leading researcher on PFAS since the late 1990s, as 3M revealed much more of its findings on the compounds' environmental persistence and health effects to the EPA, and agreed to phase out PFOS and PFOA.
Field noted that much of her research is funded by taxpayers, through the federal or state governments.
One of 3M's popular uses of PFAS compounds was Light Water, an aqueous firefighting foam, or AFFF. It is use of that product that has led to PFAS groundwater contamination at hundreds of military installations across the U.S., and perhaps thousands of other locations — fire stations, municipal airports, even the locations of long-ago fires where the foam was used only once.
In the 3M internal documents is a June 3, 1988, letter to a 3M official from Boots & Coots Fire & Protective Equipment Inc., based in Oakland, California. Officials blasted the company after learning what they'd been told for years in 3M literature and manufacturer presentations — that firefighting foam breaks down in nature — wasn't true.
A Sacramento fire protection unit had learned 3M's fire foam wasn't biodegradable in a phone call with a "'PhD scientist chemist' by the name of Eric Reimer (his last name is actually Reiner) at the 3M company," Boots & Coots executives Jim Devonshire and Bill Walton stated in the letter.
After this information was revealed, the Sacramento District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers then required Boots & Coots employees filling a foam tank to wear protective gear, as the firefighting foam was now considered "a dangerous, harmful liquid," the men stated.
"This statement was based upon information given by Eric (Reiner) and data sheets supplied by the 3M Company to the Corps of Engineers."
The men asked 3M for "a full and complete disclosure of the toxic, chemical and biodegradability effects of the 3M AFFF concentrates."
In an email to 3M colleagues that Dec. 30, Reiner, who worked in the company's Environmental Engineering and Pollution Control division, sounded further alarms on the company's firefighting foam.
"I don’t think it is in 3M’s long-term interest to perpetuate the myth that these fluorochemical surfactants are biodegradable," Reiner stated. "It is probable that this misconception will eventually be discovered, and when that happens, 3M will likely be embarrassed, and we and our customers may be fined and forced to immediately withdraw products from the market."
A response from Don Ricker in 3M's Specialty Chemical Division stated that any additional experiments on the biodegradability of the firefighting foam needed to have samples submitted through him.
"BY MEANS OF THIS MEMO I AM NOTIFYING E. REINER THAT MIKE KILLIAN, JON CHASMAN ARE THE RESPONSIBLE PARTIES FOR THE SURFACTANT LINE OF PRODUCTS," Ricker's email states.
By the late 1990s, as scientific knowledge continued to expand on PFAS compounds' persistence, and under intensifying pressure from the EPA, 3M officials prepared to announce they would voluntarily phase out and find substitutes for PFOS and their lucrative ScotchGard stain protectant lines. The company would also largely stop manufacturing PFOA compounds, but sold the rights to DuPont to continue using it in the making of its Teflon products. DuPont would continue to use PFOA until 2015.
In a Feb. 26, 1998, document entitled "FDA Communications Plan," 3M officials discussed their rollout of information to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and the EPA. The document illustrates what federal officials hadn't yet been told about what 3M knew.
This was an apparent reference to a late-1990s petition to the FDA by 3M to allow PFOS as a grease-resistant component of microwave popcorn bags. It was not until 2011 that the FDA worked out with chemical manufacturers a voluntary phaseout of PFOA in food contact paper.
Later in the document, they discuss when to do their "8e disclosure" to the EPA, the requirement under the Toxic Substances Control Act to report serious environmental or health problems associated with one of their chemicals "immediately."
"TSCA 8(e) submission completed. Describes only metabolism study and finding of FC (fluorocarbons) in sera (human blood)," the plan states.
"Plan: - File 8(e) on or before 3/6/98 - Call EPA in advance of submission - Arrange meeting for full disclosure — late March, early April."
Under a heading, "Issues associated with 8e filing," 3M officials listed, "Public disclosure (environmental activist, regulatory newsletters)."
Sandy Wynn-Stelt learned in 2017 that the well water in her home in Belmont contained up to 76,000 parts per trillion of PFAS compounds, emanating in groundwater from an old Wolverine World Wide shoe and leather company landfill across the street. The EPA has a health advisory limit for PFOS and PFOA in water of 70 parts per trillion.
Wynn-Stelt lost her husband to liver cancer in 2016, and has PFAS compounds in her blood at 750 times the level of the average American.
She reflected on the proof that 3M knew about the persistence and harms of PFAS for years before it made that information available to regulators and the public.
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"None of us would raise our kids to be that way," she said. "If you make something, and it turns out that it’s dangerous, then I think you have a responsibility to own that, and to do what you can to protect people from that."
In the Kent County city of Rockford, Jill Osbeck also learned her home's well water has PFAS compounds at levels hundreds of times higher than the EPA guidelines, also from a Wolverine World Wide landfill groundwater plume. She reacted with outrage when she learned of 3M's foreknowledge of problems associated with PFAS.
"Why would you put people’s lives at stake like that?" she said. "It’s incomprehensible to me that you would, for a dollar."
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