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3M grilled over PFAS chemicals at congressional hearing

On Tuesday, a House oversight panel asked: What did the company know about cancer-linked compounds — and when did they know it?

3M’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs Denise R. Rutherford
3M’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Denise R. Rutherford, testifying on Tuesday before a House oversight panel.
Oversight Committee video screen shot

The question asked of one of Minnesota’s largest multinational companies by federal lawmakers on Tuesday was simple — and reminiscent of Watergate: What did they know and when did they know it? 

Maplewood-based 3M, along with several other chemical companies, testified before the House Oversight Subcommittee on the Environment this week to help clarify their understanding of PFOS and PFOA, two potentially cancer causing chemicals they formerly used primarily in a variety of consumer products. And the hearing’s title, “The Devil They Knew,” offered a clear indication of how the Democratic lawmakers who control the committee would ask questions.

Subcommittee Chairman Harley Rouda (D-California) opened the hearing by calling himself a compassionate capitalist. But he felt the need to clarify: “I hope the people representing those companies today will admit their mistakes, so we can all move forward.”

But that didn’t happen. At least in the case of 3M, representatives from the company said they do not believe PFAS chemicals are harmful, unless people are exposed in extremely high concentrations.

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The $890 million question 

PFOS and PFOA fall into the broader category of PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, and there are over 5,000 of them. But the kind Congress is interested in were those made by 3M and DuPont, the former maker of Teflon.  

The companies phased out PFOS and PFOA chemicals in the early 2000s, but they still remain in the environment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains that certain PFAS chemicals, including PFOS and PFOA, are shown by some studies to increase the risk of cancer, cholesterol levels, and interfere with the body’s natural hormones.

The two chemicals were first developed for market use by 3M, using them to produce firefighting foam, which was used in large quantities by the military, and for Scotchgard, the company’s stain and water repellent product for fabric. For a time, production of the chemicals was mainly done in Minnesota. 

“In many ways Minnesota, my state, is ground zero for for the PFAS contamination that confronts the country,” former Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson testified before the committee. 

During the hearing, three expert witnesses, including Swanson, detailed numerous instances in which 3M and DuPont were aware of the nature of PFOS and PFOA years prior.

In 2010, Swanson sued the corporation, alleging the company had damaged drinking water and natural resources in the southeast Twin Cities metro area. “Unfortunately, 3M knew about the risks of the chemicals to the drinking water, the environment, and human health for decades, but concealed its knowledge, subverted the science, and kept pushing the chemicals out the door,” said Swanson. 

The state settled in 2018 for $890 million, with $850 million sectioned off for state groundwater projects. The figure represents one of the largest environmental settlements in American history.   

“The executives testifying today hid studies showing how PFAS poisons drinking water and presents grave health risks for millions of Americans,” Sonya Lunder, senior toxics policy advisor at the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “It’s time to make these polluters pay. Congress must urgently regulate the production, use and disposal of PFAS chemicals.”

But Republicans approached the hearing differently, one implying that the current PFOS research cited by Democrats is partisan “political science,” while another used his time to point out that there are a large number of PFAS chemicals, and that all should be regulated differently. 

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One Republican, ranking member James Comer (R-Kentucky), primarily used his time to question the motivations of class action lawyer Robert A. Bilot, who has worked for decades to obtain money for those impacted by PFOS. 

“Have you earned attorneys fees in connection with any subsequent PFOS lawsuits?” Comer asked. “Can you give us a ballpark figure on those fees out of curiosity? … Was it a million? Less than a million? … I’m just trying to learn …” 

Bilott used the opportunity to talk more about PFOS, and the resistance he faced when seeking evidence from PFOS-manufacturing companies like 3M and DuPont. 

“I’m astonished by the questioning that you were just presented with,” Rep. Jackie Spier (D-California) said after the questioning. “If I’m not mistaken, we have companies here who deliberately chose not to reveal negative information about PFAS, that they were selling, and chose to hide it from the American people.”

3M maintains no causation

Throughout the hearing, 3M Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs Denise R. Rutherford  maintained that while both PFAS chemicals could be associated with adverse health effects, the relationship has not been shown to be causal.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), quoting lobbying materials used by a trade organization 3M is a member of, said: “‘The weight of current scientific evidence does not show that PFOS or PFOA cause adverse health effects in humans at current rates of exposure.’ She then asked: “Ms. Rutherford, do you agree with this statement?“

“Congresswoman, I absolutely agree with that statement,” said Rutherford. 

Democrats did not concede the point. A study by the Pentagon found PFAS contamination in the drinking water of 126 locations where the PFAS-based fire foam was used. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida) asked what the companies would do to help military service members exposed to PFAS chemicals by the companies. When they didn’t provide a clear answer, she said grew frustrated and asked: “Yes or no?”  

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After the hearing concluded, Rouda said that 3M’s behavior was entirely inappropriate. “I’m disappointed in 3M’s inability to accept the science linking PFAS chemicals to serious health effects,” he said. “As chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee on Environment, I’ve listened to the personal testimonies of mothers, fathers, and children whose lives are irreparably damaged by their toxic products. 3M’s corporate-speak and refusal to acknowledge their role in creating birth defects and cancer diagnoses is a slap in the face.”

A PFAS crisis

The same day of the hearing, the National Wildlife Federation released a report detailing the impact of PFAS on the Great Lakes Region. Even with oversight, the National Wildlife Federation, the largest nonprofit conservation education and advocacy organization in the country, is concerned with the pace of cleanup and impact studies around PFAS, calling the current situation a crisis.

“The general concern with these inherently persistent chemicals has prompted a number of scientists to call for more aggressive actions to address the class as a whole,” said Dr. Michael Murray, a staff scientist at the NWF and a co-author of the report. “The bottom line is that with so many of our cities and towns living with unsafe drinking water, and the chemicals showing up increasingly in the environment, we need more – not less – protection for public health and the environment.”

A large portion of the report focuses on aggregating a number of field studies related to the impact of PFAS on birds, and in particular, tree swallows around the Great Lakes. High PFAS contamination levels were detected in tree swallow plasma in several areas around the Great Lakes, including Duluth.

PFAS chemicals have also been found in waterways near Duluth International Airport.

“There’s no good reason for states to wait around for the federal government,” said Oday Salim, a staff attorney at the NWF and the other co-author of the report. 

The Federal Safe Drinking Water Act does not currently regulate PFAS chemicals. Only New Jersey and Vermont currently have enforceable drinking water standards as they relate to the chemical compounds; Minnesota was the first state to establish advisory standards, but they are exactly that: advisory.  

Congress has included some PFAS protections in the National Defense Authorization Act, but Salim said that’s only the tip of the iceberg. 

“Everything that’s happening at the federal level is a good thing,” said Salim. But he also said there is currently not enough funding, for example, to expand state drinking water treatment systems. 

“There are so many holes and gaps.”