Cancer-linked Chemicals Manufactured by 3M Are Turning Up in Drinking Water

When Cottage Grove, Minnesota’s drinking-water panic began, Mayor Myron Bailey was at a conference in Las Vegas trying to lure new business to town. “You are the future. Cottage Grove is the place,” proclaimed a banner in his booth. A screen flashed the iconic red logo of the town’s most famous corporate resident, 3M Co., whose 1,750-acre factory sits along the banks of the Mississippi River. Behind him, the city’s administrator kept stepping away to take phone calls. Finally, she approached Bailey. “Mayor,” she said, “something is wrong.” It was 22 May 2017, and the state health department wanted to give Bailey a heads-up. It was about to set a new, lower level for a type of unregulated chemical found in Minnesota’s drinking water. And Cottage Grove’s would exceed the new threshold. It said there was no emergency, but stricter limits would better protect infants and young children. “I had a sinking feeling in my stomach,” Bailey recalled. He had known for years that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which don’t occur in nature, lingered in the water around Cottage Grove. 3M’s factory had been churning out some varieties since the 1950s for the water- and stain-repellent Scotchgard. 3M also sold its PFAS to other companies to make Teflon, outdoor gear, greaseproof food papers and firefighting foams. The company stopped using some kinds in 2002, but has since made others. And the same property that makes them so effective in consumer products—one of the strongest molecular bonds ever discovered—means they are almost impossible to get rid of and don’t break down in the environment. While the so-called “forever” chemicals had long been detected in most people’s bodies, research has shown how they accumulate and can take years to leave. Even when excreted through urine, they persist. Scientists have tracked them in biosolids and leafy greens like kale. Recent studies have linked widely used PFAS, including the varieties called PFOA and PFOS, to reduced immune response and cancer. That new evidence had stirred Minnesota’s health department to act. “There was always a perception in our community that cancer was caused by the drinking water,” Bailey said, but after the state’s announcement, “people freaked out.” He got dozens of angry calls and social-media posts a day. One woman suggested the water had killed her dog. Another asked if it was safe to breastfeed her baby. At first, he said, he didn’t know what to tell them. From New York’s Hamptons to Spokane, Washington this year, dozens of communities are starting to ask similar questions. Water tests show that 110 million Americans have levels of PFAS in their water that the most cautious scientists call unsafe, according to the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organisation that advocates for public health issues. At the same time, new studies show how the chemicals can cause harm even at tiny doses. As awareness spreads, 3M has been named in dozens of lawsuits, several this year alone. Some target industrial sources and single out other companies, like DuPont, which once made PFOA itself. But most focus on airports where the chemicals were sprayed onto the ground in firefighting foams. They name 3M as a co-defendant, saying it made the chemicals.

Contaminated Landscape

President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency, widely regarded as pro-business, announced in May that some PFAS may be declared hazardous substances and that it will study the toxicity of others—including a current Scotchgard ingredient. The chemicals aren’t regulated under the U.S.’s primary water-protection laws, but the EPA has said it may do so. Around 200 scientists have signed a joint statement of concern about the chemicals’ harms, and some call PFAS the new PCB. In a recent 852-page draft report on the chemicals’ toxicity, a federal agency said studies link some PFAS to decreased vaccine response. It also outlined the biological mechanism by which some cause harm: blocking cells from communicating with each other. 3M has urged a revision to the report, saying it relies on flawed animal studies without enough tests on humans. The company said the chemicals aren’t a danger to public health. “While the science behind PFAS is complex, the vast body of scientific evidence, which consists of decades of research conducted by independent third parties and 3M, does not show that PFOS or PFOA causes harm in people at current or historical levels,” said company spokeswoman Fanna Haile-Selassie. She declined to comment on pending litigation, but said the company has long been committed to researching the substances “and to working with community stakeholders, regulators and scientists.” Still, in Cottage Grove, where 3M first made the chemicals in bulk, there’s a sense of betrayal—stoked by a half-century of deceptions that came to light earlier this year with the airing of some of its internal documents. Here, as some parents of children with cancer say they’ve switched to bottled water and thrown away their Scotchgard and Teflon pans, it has become clear that a product once seen as a dazzling innovation may haunt the company for years to come. Bailey, a 55-year old grandfather who had supported his mayoral career with stints at Radio Shack and Pawn America, considers himself nothing if not resourceful. After the health department’s new advisory, he declared an emergency, made plans to install filters on the town’s wells, and approached 3M for help. Not only did the company refuse, it said the chemicals didn’t come from its plant. It blamed a plastics fire from 15 years earlier and run-off from the firefighting foam used to quench it. “That was such a line of you-know-what,” Bailey said. He countered with samples from wells that were upstream of the fire site yet still showed contamination. But 3M argued on, even questioning Cottage Grove’s fire chief. “I was kind of surprised,” Chief Rick Redenius said. “The foam they were saying we used, we don’t carry.” Bailey got the 18-foot-tall battery-shaped filters installed without 3M’s help, at a cost of several million dollars. A small construction crew, local businesses, and cranes raced to finish the project, and did so in 11 weeks. But just when they had put the ordeal behind them, in the fall of 2017, the news got worse. Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson had been building a case against the company for seven years, probing 3M’s internal records and studying local health data. Last November, she announced that areas around the Cottage Grove plant had elevated levels of some cancers. Swanson demanded $5 billion to clean up the mess, plus damages. As the trial approached in February, Minnesota’s health department issued a press release saying the risks shouldn’t be ignored, but that it found no “unusual differences” in cancer rates. Swanson fired back in a news conference, accusing the agency of suffering “regulatory capture,” or being influenced by the companies it regulates—a charge the agency disputed. Yet the underlying data in its full report shows some higher rates: from 1999 to 2013, Washington County had 28 percent more cases of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia compared to the rest of Minnesota. Breast cancer from 1988 to 2012 was 7 percent higher. On the eve of trial, 3M settled for $850 million without admitting any wrongdoing. The award—the third-largest for a natural-resource damage claim, behind the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez oil spills—will help pay for the water filters in Cottage Grove and surrounding towns. State officials say an underground plume of PFAS stretches for 100 square miles. The attorney general wasn’t finished. She also said there had been a scientific cover-up—that 3M knew its chemicals were dangerous, yet kept that information from regulators and local residents. Just as the suit settled, she posted a trove of 3M’s internal emails and memos on a state website to back up her allegations. 3M’s Haile-Selassie called the internal memos a small set of documents that “portrays an incomplete and misleading story and distorts the full record” of 3M’s work. It also distorts “who we are as a company,” she said. The records, which include old typed field memos and presentations to 3M’s board of directors, would appear to support Swanson’s cover-up claim. As the company insisted for more than half a century that the chemicals were safe, the internal documents suggest that its own employees withheld evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, they were woven into new innovations and spread everywhere, lodging in people and wildlife from the North Pole to the Faroe Islands. As Swanson was prepared to argue if the case had gone to trial, this gave Cottage Grove a regrettable distinction: “ground zero for a world problem.” It all began with the Manhattan Project.

In the 1940s, America wasn’t worried about chemicals in its drinking water. It was worried about war. Scientists involved in a secret project to invent the first atom bomb were looking for a way to separate uranium. They found their answer in a brand-new substance. A researcher named Joseph H. Simons had passed raw fluorine—a greenish-yellow gas known as the “wildest hellcat”—through a carbon arc. The carbon-fluorine bonds he created were almost impossible to break, and the material worked well on uranium. The first PFAS had been born. Not long after, 3M bought Simons’s patent and hired some of the Manhattan Project’s scientists for its “Fluorochemical Project,” according to a book on the company’s history. Their culture of secrecy merged into 3M’s culture of innovation. Scotchgard, which the company heralds as one of its greatest inventions, was created by accident in 1953, when a mixture of chemicals splashed on a lab assistant’s canvas shoes. Researchers noticed they repelled water and grease. Soon 3M was making Scotchgard in Cottage Grove—and producing thousands of gallons of wet waste. It buried some onsite and in three nearby towns: Oakdale, Lake Elmo and Woodbury. Documents released by Swanson show that 3M officials, even then, were trying to protect the company from getting sued. “Various methods were discussed on how to protect our company from legal action resulting from the pollution of groundwater,” one employee wrote in a 1961 memo. That year, 3M’s geology department recommended incinerating the waste so it wouldn’t seep into the ground, but the company decided not to, the records show. 3M delayed the publication of numerous studies, meaning that outside scientists didn’t know about them for decades in some cases, according to Philippe Grandjean, a Danish scientist who has studied the chemicals and teaches at Harvard’s School of Public Health. In an expert witness report prepared for the state, he cites a 1975 finding that PFOS was in almost everyone’s blood, one in 1993 that lactating goats passed it on to their offspring, and another in the early 1990s that Grandjean said found immune system dysfunction among 3M’s own workers. Still, 3M put PFAS into new products. Until 1999, it hired lawyers to argue that they should be in microwave popcorn bags, despite pushback from the Food and Drug Administration, court records show. It sold them for fast-food packaging. McDonald’s saved millions in the mid-1990s by using the chemicals to create grease-proof envelopes for its hash browns, according to the book “Preventing Waste at the Source.” Today, some scientists say grease and heat appear to help the chemicals migrate into food. A spokeswoman for McDonald’s said its packaging doesn’t contain PFAS, is safe for its intended use and contains materials that meet FDA standards. In 1997, a telling change appeared in the routine data sheets 3M sent to DuPont, which had been buying its PFAS for decades to manufacture Teflon. They said: “CANCER: WARNING: contains a chemical which can cause cancer.” The warning cited joint studies by 3M and DuPont in 1983 and 1993, but gave no further details. Then, without explanation, the warnings soon disappeared, according to Minnesota’s court filings. Inside 3M, some scientists had had enough. In 1998, they urged the company to tell the EPA that the chemicals had been found widely in human blood. In a letter that March, Charles Reich, who around that time was an executive vice president for the company’s specialty material markets, refused. (He has since retired and declined to comment for this story.) A year later, one of 3M’s scientists quit. PFOS, used in Scotchgard, was “the most insidious pollutant since PCB,” Richard Purdy wrote in his resignation letter. In it, he also said the company had told employees working on PFAS “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.” Purdy sent a copy to the EPA. Now living on a farm in Wisconsin where he makes Native American flutes, Purdy declined to comment for this story. 3M announced in 2000 that it would phase out some of the chemicals. Its annual loss would total about $438 million a year in today’s dollars. In a press release, it said the products were safe, and that its decision was based on “principles of responsible environmental management.” By 2002, 3M reformulated Scotchgard and other products with other PFAS that are still used today. The phase-out has had benefits. Studies now show that levels of the eliminated PFAS have declined in the blood of the general population. But it didn’t solve 3M’s problems. In fact, new, independent studies on the chemicals’ effects proliferated. A 2004 memo showed how a dedicated team was now being pressed to respond to issues around the globe. That meant tracking the FDA’s work, following research by the United Nations and a Swedish chemical agency, and monitoring 3M sites in Gendorf, Germany; Antwerp, Belgium; and Decatur, Alabama.

3M’s Scotchgard Saga

Internal memos show the company struggled with chemicals’ environmental risks. 3M says the documents portray “an incomplete and misleading story and distorts the full record” of its work. The team had chosen a handful of outside scientists to help it manage public perceptions, records show. One was John Giesy, a University of Michigan zoologist who was paid as a 3M consultant and studied the chemicals using 3M’s grant money. He was accused in Minnesota’s lawsuit of distorting the science on PFAS, in part by doing peer-reviews of other scientists’ studies for academic journals without disclosing his 3M ties. “In time sheets, I always listed these reviews as literature searches so that there was no paper trail to 3M,” Giesy wrote in a March 2008 email, explaining that conflict-of-interest rules mean some journals don’t let companies review papers about their own products. Giesy reported to 3M which PFAS papers he rejected or demanded changes to, according to records Minnesota obtained. The state’s allegations prompted a review by his current employer, the University of Saskatchewan, which said it found no wrongdoing. Now 70, Giesy said in a series of interviews that he did nothing wrong and his only concern was keeping mistakes out of scientific literature. In a statement, he said Minnesota’s attorney general concocted a false narrative to advance the state’s agenda. Giesy also said he’s convinced of the harm that some PFAS can do. He singled out a study he worked on, along with an EPA scientist, that showed the mechanism by which one PFAS—the one used for years in Scotchgard—can promote cancer: It stops cells from communicating with each other. That chemical “is one of the strongest cancer promoters I’ve ever seen,” he said. With cells’ communication blocked, they can’t organize an immune response to fight rogue cells that grow into cancer. The same study showed that the chemical in reformulated Scotchgard does not block cell communication. But Giesy said he still warned 3M to use it only as a “short-term bridge” and ultimately switch to “something that would unwind in the environment.” The newer PFAS would accumulate as its predecessor had, he said, “and I couldn’t predict where that would lead.” Travel 14 miles north of Cottage Grove, past cornfields and the odd hobby farm for fall pumpkins, and you hit Oakdale. Here, test wells pull up the area’s highest concentrations of PFOS and PFOA. Each May, the city’s Tartan High School is one of the top fundraisers in the Relay for Life, a nationwide run that raises money to find cancer cures. Last May, as dusk descended ahead of the all-night relay, students took to a podium set up in front of Tartan’s football field. Amara Strande, 16, described herself as “medically famous”—after she was diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma, the surgeon who removed a 15-pound mass from her liver said he’d never seen anything like it. Ben Rule, a 21-year-old Tartan alumnus, said that after his diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia at 16, he endured an allergic reaction to chemotherapy, a coma and a collapsed hip bone. But he wouldn’t go back in time and stop himself from getting cancer. “It taught me lessons,” he said.

Safe to Drink?

No one mentions the chemicals, or 3M at the event. But privately, Jan Churchill, a Tartan math teacher, keeps a grim tally: Five students have died over a 10-year time-frame, many parents and teachers are also sick, and her own husband was just diagnosed with a rare blood cancer after years of mysterious immune problems. She suspects 3M is to blame. “Every time I drink out of the water fountain, I want to throw up,” she said. Establishing that a chemical actually causes harm is a monumental task. It often takes decades of study in petri dishes and on animals, and then there can be doubts about how well such studies translate to humans. Spotty census data and death records can also leave doubt. But in Oakdale, PFAS show the “clearest evidence” of impact on human health, according to an expert report for Minnesota’s case by David Sunding, a professor at the University of California Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources and a principal at consulting firm The Brattle Group. The reason: water filters installed in 2006 lowered the levels of the chemicals, and after that, instances of low birth weight or premature babies decreased, as did signs of infertility. Still, troubling statistics remain in Oakdale. A child who died there from 2003 to 2015 was 171 percent more likely to have had cancer compared to those in a larger tri-county area, according to Sunding’s report. Disputes over the science have done little to slow lawsuits over PFAS across the nation. They’ve been on the rise ever since a 2017 victory against DuPont, which started making its own PFOA after 3M phased it out. In that case, a “medical monitoring” project studied the blood and health of 70,000 people near a DuPont plant in West Virginia for years. It eventually linked PFOA to six diseases, including ulcerative colitis and testicular cancer. The findings spurred a handful of trial victories and, ultimately, a $671 million settlement for 3,500 people. (DuPont has since spun the business off as Chemours and merged to become DowDuPont.) A spokesman for DowDuPont, Daniel Turner, said the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation. “However, throughout the time it used PFOA, DuPont had a well-founded, good faith belief that low levels of PFOA exposure did not pose a health hazard,” Turner said, adding that it operated with “the health and environmental information that was then available to the industry and regulators.” Chemours declined to comment. In 3M’s home state, there have been no such tests or legal victory for individuals. Gale Pearson, a Minneapolis lawyer who sued 3M in 2004, says she struggled to find willing plaintiffs from Cottage Grove or other affected towns. The stoic, polite “Minnesota nice” culture kept many people from signing up, she said. And many people had friends or family who worked for 3M. One was the judge who oversaw the case. Washington County District Judge Mary Hannon granted 3M’s bid to dismiss Pearson’s class complaint in 2007, court records show. Her reason was that the case failed to show a link between the personal injury claims and 3M’s alleged wrongdoing, and had major flaws, like failing to put an end date on the class period. It wasn’t public at the time, but Hannon confirmed that her father worked for 3M for about 40 years. After discussing it with the lawyers in the case, Hannon decided at the time that it wasn’t a conflict of interest, and she says today that her ruling wasn’t influenced by that family connection. All the revelations since the class-action failed have caused residents to rethink what 3M has long told them.

Amy Kirkwood, 34, who watched the Relay for Life from the Tartan bleachers with her 10-year-old daughter, Lexi, said she regrets that she threw away an invitation to join the class action in 2004. After that, she recalled reading local news articles that mentioned the chemicals in water, but often had a 3M official saying they were safe, and that the water was ok to drink. “I’m fine, the water’s fine,” she thought at the time, and during her pregnancy, when she also drank it. In January 2015, her attitude changed almost overnight. Lexi came down with a stomach ache, and the next day she was diagnosed with a type of kidney cancer, Wilm’s tumour, already in stage four. It had encased her kidney, metastasised to her lungs and begun wrapping around blood vessels, headed toward her heart. Kirkwood threw out anything Teflon or Scotchgard and switched to bottled water. Now, after 3M’s settlement with the state, she’s incensed about the earlier lawsuit’s failure. She wonders why state and federal officials didn’t act sooner, and she fears that people in charge are withholding information. “It’s scary,” she said.

A Drop in a Pool

Philip Landrigan, a paediatrician and professor at Boston College’s Global Public Health initiative, says because even very low levels of PFAS are a concern, he recommends people not use the reformulated Scotchgard, “even as we wait for definitive information. I worry about exposures in kids and pregnant women,” he says. Just how low are the levels? The EPA’s “health advisory” for PFOA and PFOS is less than 70 ppt. That’s less than a few drops in an Olympic-size pool, which contains about 3,750 cubic metres of water. To give you a sense of how little that is, one cubic metre holds 1,000 litres of water, which a person could easily fit into. It would be impossible to tell how many particles of PFAS, if any, make it into that 1-litre cube, but if you were to condense that 70 ppt into an even smaller cube, you could see how much Minnesota’s new 2017 guidelines shrunk the advised levels of PFAS, to 35 ppt for PFOA and 27 ppt for PFOS. This June, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) suggested even lower levels of 11 ppt for PFOA and 7 ppt for PFOS. Philippe Grandjean, a Danish scientist and professor at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, who has studied immune effects of the chemicals, is among the most cautious on them. He suggests a safe level of 1 ppt for PFAS overall. That’s less than 1 drop in an Olympic-size pool. Scientists outside of 3M have become increasingly outspoken about the risks of PFAS. Linda Birnbaum, director of the toxicology program in the National Institutes of Health, said there’s evidence the chemicals are toxic. Most of the thousands of PFAS variants haven’t been tested, she said, but all that have been show problems. Phil Brown, a Northeastern University sociology professor who specializes in toxic exposures, likens 3M’s actions to cigarette makers who for decades avoided liability from their products’ links to cancer. Minnesota’s statute of limitations might complicate any new lawsuits there. For plaintiffs elsewhere, Swanson’s airing of the company’s internal memos drew a roadmap, said Rob Bilott, a partner at Taft Stettinus & Hollister LLP, who sued DuPont in West Virginia. “Those documents are helpful for establishing what 3M knew and when it knew it,” he said. Bilott sued 3M and other PFAS users in October, saying they “maliciously conspired” with trade groups to conceal the chemicals’ toxicity. 3M won’t comment about ongoing litigation. The suit, which seeks to represent everybody in the U.S. with PFAS in their blood, alleges that 3M and other companies have refused to fund extensive testing, and demands that they pay for it. Such studies may also come out of other lawsuits, including one over pollution in Hoosick Falls, New York. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, testing is planned amid a dispute over whether a paediatric cancer cluster is linked to a former air force base that used firefighting foam. In Hoosick Falls, where Saint Gobain Corporation used the chemicals, the company says that before it was asked, it started supplying the village with potable water. “It is important to note that we never manufactured PFOA,” spokeswoman Dina Pokedoff said, adding that it came from suppliers, which are kept confidential for business reasons. Meanwhile, 3M says it is also addressing historic PFAS disposal at two other manufacturing sites in the U.S.—in Cordova, Illinois, and Decatur. And the list of products using PFAS continues to grow. Private labs have recently warned technicians who test water to avoid cross-contaminating their samples by steering clear of blue chemical ice packs, certain brands of sunscreen and Post-It Notes. And scientists are discussing ways to break down their powerful bonds. So far, high temperature incineration seems to work, according to a Danish Environmental Protection Agency report. Back in Cottage Grove, white clouds still billow from 3M’s factory at the end of the street named Innovation Road. Bailey struggles to reconcile the friendly company that donates money to the town’s basketball leagues and the Fourth of July fireworks with the one portrayed by his state’s lawsuit. “My belief is there are certain people within 3M that wanted to keep it quiet, and others at 3M that didn’t know it was as bad as it is,” he said. Bailey wonders if the problem is truly behind the community. The water filters will be effective for only five years, and a permanent solution will likely cost $100 million. 3M’s settlement with the state is meant to cover that, but the fund has other demands on it: A nearby community, St. Paul Park, found more PFAS contamination after the settlement, and officials are still evaluating rural wells. Bailey said 3M has been more generous than usual since the settlement. But he wants something more than the company’s money. “To this day they have said they don’t believe anything is wrong,” he said. “If you are a business or individual who has done something wrong, I believe you can be accountable, and say you did it.”

Bloomberg, 2 November 2018 ;