Behind 3M’s Decision to Halt PFAS Production

Behind 3M’s Decision to Halt PFAS Production

The Maplewood-based manufacturing giant announced Monday it will stop using these “forever chemicals” by the end of 2025. Why now?

3M Co. announced this week it will stop the manufacturing of all per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances also known as PFAS or “forever chemicals”by the end of 2025.

Factors that contributed to the decision included “accelerating regulatory trends focused on reducing or eliminating the presence of PFAS in the environment and changing stakeholder expectations,” the company said in a news release issued Monday.

While the company explicitly said it would stop manufacturing the chemicals by the end of 2025, the release simply said 3M will “work” to discontinue the use of PFAS across its product portfolio by the end of 2025. However, a spokesperson for 3M told TCB the company plans to discontinue all use of PFAS by the end of 2025.

Customers and consumers are increasingly interested in alternatives to PFAS, according to 3M.

There are also multiple regulatory factors the company took into account. 3M’s announcement comes two weeks after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a memorandum that provides direction on how states can monitor for PFAS discharges and take steps to reduce them where they are detected. Michael Regan, administrator of the EPA, first announced that his agency would start pursuing a number of new rules around the chemicals in October of 2021. 

The new EPA memo published in December provides states with direction on how to use the nation’s bedrock clean water permitting program, which is part of the EPA’s 2021-2024 PFAS Strategic Roadmap. In a news release announcing the new memo, the EPA said states like Michigan and North Carolina have already demonstrated the benefits of leveraging their state-administered NPDES permit programs.

In August, the Biden administration announced that the EPA would list well-known PFAS compounds PFOS and PFOA as hazardous substances under federal cleanup law. The EPA released a new draft advisory in June that lowered what’s considered safe levels of PFOS and PFOA exposure in drinking water to nearly zero. The agency says it plans to finalize national drinking water standards for PFOS and PFOA by next fall.

PFOS and PFOA are no longer manufactured in the U.S. after 3M committed to phasing out the chemical’s use back in 2010. But compounds with similar molecular structures have continued to fill the market since then.

The European Union has also indicated plans to potentially restrict all PFAS by 2025.

Meanwhile, Minnesota has also announced plans to further regulate the chemical. In June, Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill that bans using PFAS in several types of food packaging starting Jan. 1, 2024.

Dubbed “forever chemicals,” PFAS does not naturally break down in the environment. The chemicals have been linked to immune system suppression, thyroid disease, cancer, low fertility, and birth defects. A two-part series published last week in the Minnesota Reformer extensively outlined 3M’s history of chemical contamination of water systems in the Twin Cities’ East Metro.

Despite facing countless litigation, 3M has maintained its position that products using these chemicals can be safely manufactured, though the Reformer reported the company still mismanaged its waste disposal last year. The story noted a two-year Minnesota Pollution Control Agency investigation found the company mismanaged hazardous waste shipped to its Cottage Grove incinerator. This resulted in a $2.8 million penalty.

The company says PFAS are critical in the manufacture of many products including medical technologies, semiconductors, batteries, phones, vehicles, and airplanes. Current annual net sales of manufactured PFAS are approximately $1.3 billion. 

“While PFAS can be safely made and used, we also see an opportunity to lead in a rapidly evolving external regulatory and business landscape to make the greatest impact for those we serve,” 3M CEO Mike Roman said in the news release. “This action is another example of how we are positioning 3M for continued sustainable growth by optimizing our portfolio, innovating for our customers, and delivering long-term value for our shareholders.”

The company has faced extensive litigation over its use of PFAS chemicals PFOS and PFOA including an $850 million settlement with the state in 2018.

This lawsuit centered around a 150-square-mile plume of contaminated groundwater that impacted more than 170,000 people in Washington County.

Litigation arising from PFAS is not the only legal battle 3M has settled in recent years.  

In 2018, 3M agreed to a $9.1 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice in response to allegations of defective product sales. The government accused 3M and its predecessor company, Aearo Technologies Inc., of knowingly selling dysfunctional Combat Army Earplugs to the military.