St. Paul, Minn. — Much of what the EPA knows about these chemicals comes from the manufacturers. 3M’s studies tend to focus on male plant workers rather than pregnant women, the children of workers or the people who live near the plants.
In 1981, DuPont found evidence of birth defects in babies born to female workers in West Virginia. DuPont now faces more than $300 million in fines for allegedly not turning over that information to the EPA.
A study 3M published on American children in 2004 showed that children and adults in the general population have similar levels of perfluorinated chemicals in their blood. 3M concluded that the chemicals are passed from mother to child in utero.
According to Rich Purdy, the former 3M eco-toxicologist, children have another possible route of exposure.
“These chemicals are put onto sleepwear and put onto carpets,” says Purdy. “Well, babies are put onto carpets and into sleepwear, and what do they do? They suck on their sleepwear and put their saliva-covered hands onto the carpet. And these chemicals are on the carpet, so they can be extracting it. They can get huge amounts there.”
3M BEGINS RESEARCH
Purdy says the 1997 discovery that low levels of the chemicals were widespread in the human population prompted 3M to begin amassing a huge base of information.
“When they found it, then they started doing a lot more testing — of everything. We initiated studies with fish. We initiated studies with invertebrates. We initiated studies on rats for cancer — maybe they were started even earlier than that,” says Purdy. “They started other studies for human toxicology. They initiated studies on quail and mallards and birds. They initiated studies for how long it lasts in the atmosphere and biodegradation. So there was a lot of testing started.”
Purdy says he found it unsettling when the chemicals were found in baby eagles — birds that had never left the nest. This finding signaled to Purdy that the chemicals had entered the food chain. Other tests showed the chemicals were present in fish from the Atlantic Ocean.
“I calculated how much seals and killer whales higher up the food chain would be exposed to, and it was huge amounts. And they were amounts that were, in my estimation, higher than the concentrations we knew would affect animals,” says Purdy. “I was concerned about that, and wanted 3M to report the concern to EPA under the Toxic Substances Control Act, because if you find data that it’s hazardous, you need to report it to the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Purdy says his managers weren’t ready to report it. 3M medical director Dr. Larry Zobel says the company had to be satisfied the research was right before taking it to the EPA.
“We certainly were going to report everything that we had. We’d gather stuff up and send it in, on somewhat of a periodic basis, to the agency. We’d get some results in and they’d be initial lab results,” says Zobel. “I wasn’t working with Rich at that time, so I can’t speak to the particular circumstance — but I know we had a lot of discussions in our department (that) we need final data. Before we send something in it’s going to be final data, it’s going to be validated, and we’re not going to send it in until we’re sure of what we’ve got.”
During this time, Rich Purdy says he was pressured not to put his concerns about the findings into writing. He says the company feared lawsuits.
“There wasn’t a memo, because they didn’t want you to write it down. And they didn’t want to write it down because they knew there may be legal discovery coming,” Purdy says. “My concerns with one sample — I did put it in an e-mail and they were quite concerned about that. I said, ‘Well, there’s a reason I put it in an e-mail that way. This might well be open to discovery.’ And the management had us stamping anything we wrote down as ‘attorney-client privilege.’ It wasn’t proper, but they wanted everything stamped with that stamp.”
“I actually had forgotten about that,” says 3M’s Zobel. “I can remember having a stamp that said ‘attorney-client privilege’ as well, for a brief period of time. Quite honestly, we were trying to make decisions about the management of information, and I think it was probably during that time. It obviously didn’t have much of an impact. We always knew everything would be transparent.”
The stamping practice was short-lived. Nevertheless, Rich Purdy decided to leave 3M in Febuary 2000. He’d been with the company for 19 years, and thought it was time to move on. Three months later, in May 2000, 3M announced its phaseout of the original Scotchgard and most other products the company made with PFOA and PFOS.
Rich Purdy now runs a farm in western Wisconsin, where he breeds draft horses. Because of what he learned at 3M, Purdy says he doesn’t have carpets in his house. His farm is all organic.
“Don’t fool with chemicals if you don’t have to,” says Purdy.
But he says there’s not much you can do to avoid perfluorochemicals in the environment.
Purdy isn’t bitter toward his former employer. In fact, he speaks with pride about the company’s investment in science — and ultimately, the job it did on these chemicals.
He compares 3M favorably to other companies in the perfluorinated chemicals business — DuPont, for example, which continues to make and use the chemicals.
“3M is like somebody who ran the stop sign, got through the stop sign, ‘Oh my God,’ and stopped,” says Purdy. “Well, DuPont didn’t stop, didn’t care, hit-and-run, just keeps rolling down the road.”
DuPont claims “no known adverse human health effects have been reported in connection with levels of PFOA measured in workers or the general population.”
LEGAL ACTION IS PENDING
Even though 3M is no longer in the business of making PFOA and PFOS, it faces lawsuits for its past practices.
In 2002 a 3M worker in the Decatur, Alabama, plant where Scotchgard was produced sued the company, alleging the company didn’t disclose the health risks of working with the chemicals. That suit has now expanded to include other former and current workers and their children. The case is pending.
Two years later, in September 2004, neighbors of the Decatur plant sued. They claimed chemicals had contaminated their soil and groundwater, and lowered their property values. In October 2004, 3M faced a new lawsuit, this time in Minnesota.
Gale Pearson is the attorney bringing the class action suit.
“The complaint is alleging that 3M has manufactured a chemical that is dangerous to the community in their plant,” says Pearson. “And they have not taken steps to protect this chemical from leaking into the groundwater to the community outside of their plant.”
The Cottage Grove suit claims increased risk of cancer and asthma to people exposed to these chemicals. It is seeking environmental cleanup, health monitoring and monetary damages.
The company says the lawsuit is without merit. 3M spokesman Rick Renner says the allegations in the complaint misrepresent extensive scientific research, and many other facts.
When asked about risks to residents near the Cottage Grove plant, 3M’s medical director Larry Zobel says if those with the highest exposure — workers — aren’t sick, the rest of the community probably isn’t either.
“Workers who worked directly with precursor materials have much higher exposure, and have blood levels that are 60 to 100 to 1,000 times more than what is seen in the general population,” Zobel says. “We have not been able to attribute any health effects in those employees to the presence of these chemicals at those concentrations. So the combination of what we’ve seen in employee medical surveillance and monitoring, and the laboratory studies, give us pretty good assurance that at the low levels in the general population, there are no effects to be concerned about.”
Before the Minnesota lawsuit was filed, the state Health Department tried to assess the health risk from perfluorochemicals at the 3M Cottage Grove plant. The report concluded there was insufficient data to say if the plant was a risk or not.
“At this point we can’t say a whole lot,” says health assessor Jim Kelly, the author of that report.
Kelly made a series of recommendations in order to fill these gaps, modeled on the investigation at 3M’s Alabama plant.
“There’s been a great deal of effort to investigate 3M’s Decatur, Alabama, plant. And what appeared to me, at least, a not quite as comparable effort to investigate 3M’s plant in Cottage Grove. Therefore we recommended that the scope of the investigation that’s being proposed for their Decatur Plant be applied to this facility as well,” says Kelly.
OLIAEI’S RESEARCH GOES FORWARD, WITHOUT HER
Now, almost five years after 3M announced it would quit making PFOA and PFOS, the MPCA, the Minnesota Health Department and 3M are embarking on an open-ended, comprehensive plan to test soil, groundwater, and wastewater treatment facilities at the Cottage Grove plant. Fish and surface water from the Mississippi River will also be tested. 3M is investigating more landfills where it may have disposed of fluorochemical wastes.
Some of the work is already underway, like the test that turned up the contamination in the Oakdale water supply. At this point, there is no plan to test the blood of residents. 3M told MPR the company would be open to biomonitoring, if environmental data indicated a significantly greater risk of exposure around the plant.
Dr. Oliaei, the MPCA’s expert on new chemicals, is not involved with this research. It will be carried out and paid for by 3M.
The kind of research spelled out in the new work plan is what Oliaei proposed doing two years ago — and was never given permission to do so by her bosses at the MPCA. The MPCA’s deputy commissioner told MPR Oliaei’s research was not turned down for financial reasons.
And as for why the agency didn’t start studying 3M’s fluorochemicals until two years after the phaseout began, Michael Kanner, the head of the MPCA’s Superfund division, expresses some regret.
“There was no evil intent. … We have good people here, and it’s easy to say, ‘Four years ago, you should have.’ To hindsight, 20-20 is always great,” Kanner says. “In retrospect, we wish we had probably started earlier. We wish we had more information from EPA, from 3M, from the Health Department on what all the numbers should be in terms of health values and so on. But we didn’t.”
When the agency did get going on its investigation in 2002, MPCA records show it was Dave Douglas, the Cottage Grove Superfund manager, who made it happen.
Douglas got the Health Department to develop safe drinking water standards. He followed a tip from the EPA that led to the discovery of 3M fluorochemical waste at area landfills. And he urged a co-worker in the water quality division to calculate how many pounds of PFOA and PFOS were going into the river.
In November 2004, just as the MPCA was about to sign off on the environmental monitoring plan with 3M, Douglas was pulled from the case. When MPR asked why the the MPCA official with the most experience on the 3M case was reassigned, Douglas’ manager said it was routine.
The fluorochemical issue has been a costly one for 3M. It’s spent millions studying the effects of these chemicals. Michael Santoro says it’s also changed the way 3M works.
“We have established new policies in the company to look at persistent materials, so that is something new. And we are able to catch these things, if you will, as new chemicals and new products are developed,” Santoro says.
When you go to the store, you can still buy a can of Scotchgard. 3M still makes the product, but with a different chemical formulation. 3M’s Larry Zobel says the new Scotchgard is safer.
“First of all, it doesn’t stay in the body. It’s excreted, eliminated, from lab animals. And some limited information from people tells us that it leaves the body very quickly. So in terms of safety with regard to health, it’s extraordinarily safe,” says Zobel.
When Santoro was asked whether the new Scotchgard is as good as the old, he laughed, “Of course it is!”