"Chemical Lab" by ignat.gorazd is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

3M Knew Its Fluorochemicals Were Toxic Decades Ago & Likely To Cause Cancer

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ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. It recently released a 8,000 word exposé on how 3M knew that its PFAS chemicals were in people’s bodies.

The information in the article is too important to overlook, so here are its highlights.

In 1997, Jim Johnson gave a 3M Corporation chemist, Kris Hansen, an unusual assignment: Hansen was to test human blood for chemical contamination. With a doctoral dissertation on tiny particles in the atmosphere, she was the right choice.

What was the reason for Hansen’s assignment? Several of 3M’s most successful products contained human-made compounds called fluorochemicals. The company’s PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) had tested positive in the bodies of 3M factory workers. General population samples, too, seemed to contain the blood contaminants.

Were these results a lab error?

She used a mass spectrometer, which weighs molecules and makes identification possible. She and her team devoted several weeks analyzing more blood — every single one was contaminated. She updated Johnson on her team’s findings. His response was “cryptic.” Without any feedback from her supervisors, she and her team ordered fresh blood samples from every supplier with whom 3M worked.

Each of the samples tested positive for PFOS.

Then her boss took early retirement.

Although Hansen had been told that PFOS wasn’t harmful in factory workers, she wanted to be certain. She knew from her studies and previous field research that the most reliable way to gauge the safety of chemicals is to study them over time, in animals and, if possible, in humans.

What Hansen didn’t know was that 3M had already conducted animal studies, starting in the 1970s. The studies had shown PFOS to be toxic, yet the results remained secret, even to many at the company. Rats and monkeys died within weeks of PFOS exposure.

In 1979, an internal company report deemed PFOS “certainly more toxic than anticipated” and recommended longer term studies. Hansen’s bosses never told her that PFOS was toxic. Meanwhile, one superior intimated that her lab testing equipment might be contaminated. After careful cleaning, the results stayed the same. 3M bought three additional and very expensive mass spectrometers, and she repeated her tests on different populations and in different venues.

Each sample contained PFOS. The chemical seemed to be everywhere.

On its website today, 3M describes fluorochemicals.

“3M helped pioneer the science of fluorochemistry more than 60 years ago – and we’re continuing to find new ways to put these amazing materials to work … 3M fluorochemicals are engineered for high purity, performance and sustainability – including our next-generation C4 chemistry, offering a favorable safety and environmental profile for its intended uses.”

These compounds are now considered “forever chemicals.” In 2023 the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) released the first tranche of testing data for PFAS in drinking water. They found hundreds of water systems are contaminated with the toxic “forever chemicals.” About 8% of water systems that serve approximately 14 million people detected two of the most common of these chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, in their drinking water at levels that exceed EPA’s proposed drinking water limits.

A colleague gave Hansen more blood samples to test, which were positive for PFOS — yet the samples came from a horse. Instead of succumbing to humiliation, Hansen questioned why PFOS was making its way into animals.

Her answer was unnerving: the chemical had spread through the food chain and perhaps through water. Hansen and her team ultimately found PFOS in eagles, chickens, rabbits, cows, pigs, and other animals. They also found 14 additional fluorochemicals in human blood, including several produced by 3M. Some were present in wastewater from a 3M factory.

Hansen found no recourse for the way senior colleagues kept questioning her work. Instead, she devised an experiment in which blood without PFOS might be located. She was successful — samples that showed no trace of PFOS were located in blood that had been collected before 3M created PFOS. “Apparently, fluorochemicals had entered human blood after the company started selling products that contained them,” the ProPublica article explains. “They had leached out of 3M’s sprays, coatings, and factories — and into all of us.”

Hansen met a scientist who revealed to her a paper written in 1981 by 3M scientists. It outlined experiments and confirmed suspicions about 3M origins of PFOS, but 3M lawyers had urged the lab not to reveal their findings.

A presentation Hansen was asked to give to 3M’s CEO, Livio D. DeSimone, “seemed to view her diligence as a betrayal: Her data could be damaging to the company.” The CEO fell asleep in the meeting. While defending herself, she recalled other scientists before her who had been unsuccessful in persuading the upper 3M echelon.

Soon afterward, Hansen’s job description changed. Only experiments specifically requested by a supervisor would be permitted. Her new role would be to analyze samples for studies that other employees were conducting — and to do so without question.

Yet Hansen’s research was not lost. The results of her research “were quietly making their way into the files of the Environmental Protection Agency.” By 1998, 3M officials admitted that the company had measured PFOS in blood samples from around the US — Hansen’s research — but did not believe that its products presented a substantial risk to human health.

Hansen, meanwhile, was ostracized by her superiors and co-workers. Over 2 decades Hansen worked on many new tasks at 3M — except fluorochemicals.

Pressure from the EPA forced 3M to discontinue its entire portfolio of PFOS-­related chemicals. In 2006, after the EPA accused 3M of violating the Toxic Substances Control Act, in part by repeatedly ­failing to disclose the harms of fluorochemicals promptly, the company agreed to pay a small penalty of $1.5 million, without admitting wrongdoing.

A swath of 150 square miles around 3M’s headquarters was found to be polluted with PFAS — local fish and water supplies were full of it.

In October 2022, after Hansen had been at 3M for 26 years, her job was eliminated, and she chose not to apply for a new one. She reached out to ProPublica for what would be her first public discussion of her fluorochemicals research. She expressed regret that revealing what she had known earlier in her life “would have been too much to bear at the time.” Johnson, Hansen’s former boss, not only concurred with her accounts but added multi-layered details of his own attempts to uncover flurochemicals in 3M products and their reaction in humans.

3M has now settled a lawsuit filed by cities and towns with polluted water to the tune of $12.5 billion to filter out PFAS — depending on how many water systems need the chemicals removed. “The settlement, however, doesn’t approach the scale of the problem,” the ProPublica article concludes. “At least 45% of US tap water is estimated to contain one or more forever chemicals.” The cost of removing them all will likely reach $100 billion.

An April 2024 Biden-Harris rule will designate the PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as Superfund, and “will help ensure that polluters pay to clean up their contamination.”

The original story in its entirety is exempt from ProPublica’s Creative Commons license until July 19.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

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