A closer look at 3M's recent courtroom triumph in a PFAS legal battle

Over the last 20 years or so, global chemicals giant 3M has found itself entangled in a legal labyrinth.

A closer look at 3M's recent courtroom triumph in a PFAS legal battle
The logo for DuPont de Nemours, Inc. is seen on the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., August 3, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

The backstory: Over the last 20 years or so, global chemicals giant 3M has found itself entangled in a legal labyrinth. The reason? Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. These chemicals, which are used in a huge amount of consumer products like clothes and non-stick pans, linger in the human body and the environment and can cause health problems.

Nicknamed "forever chemicals," PFAS became a headache for 3M, with a slew of lawsuits alleging that the company knew about the health risks associated with them. One big concern was the potential contamination of drinking water systems. 

Earlier this year, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed national PFAS drinking water standards, where water systems would have to track six PFAS chemicals, warn if levels are too high and fix things if needed. Last year, 3M pledged to cease PFAS production by 2025. 3M isn’t alone in this problem. Other industry giants like DuPont have also gotten caught up in the PFAS legal tangle. 

As for China, the first comprehensive study reviewing PFAS levels in Chinese drinking water was published in 2021 and found that PFAS levels in 16 cities were higher than the limits used in the US. China is one of the largest manufacturers and consumers of PFAS, but the nation has no safety guidelines for these chemical levels found in drinking water.

More recently: In June, 3M agreed to a US$10.3 billion settlement, closing many PFAS-related claims against the company. Just before that, heavyweights like Chemours, DuPont and Corteva threw over US$1 billion to settle lawsuits over these "forever chemicals."

The development: A US appeals court just ruled in favor of 3M, Corteva and other PFAS manufacturers. It tossed out a lower court ruling that might have allowed over 11 million Ohio residents to sue these companies over PFAS. 

The 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati stopped a potential major lawsuit, criticizing the lead complainant, Kevin Hardwick, for a complaint that was too broad. The court questioned if the PFAS in his body could be directly blamed on companies like 3M and DuPont. 

The court felt the case didn’t have enough supporting evidence, recognizing there are thousands of PFAS companies but only 10 were listed in the lawsuit. So, the lower court was told to dismiss the lawsuit, which was aiming to have these companies pay to study the health effects of PFAS. 3M is cheering the decision, but Hardwick's lawyer, Robert Bilott, is thinking about appealing, arguing that the court didn't grasp the history of PFAS production in the US.

Globally, this could set a precedent for companies who produce PFAS, as well as how nations study the links of these chemicals with health issues and regulate them in the environment.

Key comments: 

"Seldom is so ambitious a case filed on so slight a basis," said US Circuit Judge Raymond Kethledge.

“Many PFAS are water soluble and do not degrade possibly for centuries and longer and are therefore called ‘forever chemicals’. If you have contaminated ground water used for irrigation, it will go into your plant, your food and your cattle,” said Roland Weber, a co-author of a study on PFAS by Tsinghua University. 

"This is an important step forward for 3M, which builds on our actions that include our announced exit of PFOA and PFOS manufacturing more than 20 years ago, our more recent investments in state-of-the-art water filtration technology in our chemical manufacturing operations, and our announcement that we will exit all PFAS manufacturing by the end of 2025," said 3M chairman and CEO Mike Roman, in a statement in June. 

"I am thrilled to announce that EPA is taking yet another bold step to protect public health," said US EPA Administrator Michael Regan in March. "Folks, this is a tremendous step forward in the right direction. We anticipate that when fully implemented, this rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-related illnesses."

"The damage caused by 3M, DuPont, and other manufacturers of PFAS is nothing short of staggering, and without drastic action, California will be dealing with the harms of these toxic chemicals for generations," said US Attorney General Rob Bonta last year.