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3M and Scotchgard: "Heroes of Chemistry" or a 20-year coverup?

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St, Paul, Minn. - 3M today announced it is phasing out of the perfluorooctanyl chemistry used to produce certain repellents and surfactant products. . . . "While this chemistry has been used effectively for more than 40 years and our products are safe, our decision to phase out production is based on our principles of responsible environmental management."
- 3M press release, May 16, 2000 (view entire document)

PFOS is of significant concern on the basis of evidence of widespread human exposure and indications of toxicity. ... These chemicals "combine persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity properties to an extraordinary degree."
- EPA internal memorandum, May 16, 2000
(view entire document)

In 1999, 3M placed second for outstanding environmental performance in a worldwide survey of the top 50 chemical-using corporations. In 1997, the company was presented the "Heroes of Chemistry Award" from the American Chemistry Council, the major U.S. trade group for the chemical industry, for development of innovative alternatives to ozone-depleting chemicals. And in 1996, President Clinton's Council on Sustainable Development selected 3M to receive the President's Sustainable Development Award for the company's progressive Pollution Prevention Pays program.

The list of accolades goes on. But behind 3M's green image is a disturbing reality that poses an even more disturbing question: If 3M is the model corporate citizen of the industry, what are other chemical companies doing?

Consider 3M's Scotchgard coatings, surely one of America's best-known chemical industry brand names. It is universally recognized by consumers as the magical substance that repels water and stains from clothes, carpets and furniture. Hardly anyone knows Scotchgard has been used for years in the wrappings for an eye-opening list of packaged and fast foods.

Scotchgard ingredients belong to a large family of chemicals that degrade to form a chemical called PFOS, or perfluorooctane sulfonate. They are fluorocarbons, related to CFCs, which are now banned as ozone depleters. 3M has manufactured PFOS commercially since 1948, and in 2000 was expected to produce more than 10 million pounds of the compound for use in Scotchgard products.

It was unexpected, then, when on May 16, 2000, 3M announced with a vague, one-page press release that it would phase out of the PFOS market by the end of 2002 because of concerns over what the company said was new information--that the chemical had been "detected broadly at extremely low levels in the environment and in people." (view entire document) It looked like another environmentally responsible decision, and despite the estimated $200 million charge against 3M's bottom line and the loss of a profitable product line, the company's stock price actually rose in response to the announcement.

But the truth behind the phaseout is anything but laudable. It is found in a mountain of documents on file at EPA's Washington headquarters. Almost no one outside 3M or the agency has ever read these documents, and they have not been available online -until now.

In the 50 years between the start of commercial production and the phaseout announcement, many millions of pounds of PFOS chemicals have entered the environment and now contaminate the blood of people and wildlife to an extraordinary extent. In 1997, 3M found PFOS in supposedly clean samples from blood banks all over the world. PFOS can be found in children, in polar bears from Alaska, and in bald eagles from the Great Lakes.

Although research is still evolving, PFOS is known to damage the liver and to produce severe birth defects in lab animals, among other health effects. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says PFOS chemicals combine "persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity properties to an extraordinary degree." (view entire document) The more than 1,000 documents in EPA's Administrative Record on Scotchgard--some 29,000 pages of material--show clearly that 3M knew its products were in the blood of the general population as early as 1976 and had detected PFOS in their own plant workers as early as 1979. 3M waited more than 20 years before agreeing, under threat of regulatory action by EPA, to remove this health hazard from the marketplace - hardly responsible behavior.

And while 3M aggressively marketed Scotchgard directly to consumers for decades, making it a household word, the company has done next to nothing to inform the public that the active ingredient in its product now universally contaminates the American population, and will persist in our blood for years to come.

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last updated: march.27.2009

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