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For 40 years, Dupont and 3M knew PFAS chemicals posed a danger to human health — but they hid the evidence from regulators, employees and the public so they could continue selling their toxic products.
According to the authors of the new study in the Annals of Global Health, “the chemical industry used the tactics of the tobacco industry to delay public awareness of the toxicity of PFAS and, in turn, delayed regulations governing their use.”
During the decades the two companies hid their own scientists’ research on the health risks of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances’ (PFAS), the so-called “forever chemicals” — which take hundreds of years to break down in the environment — became ubiquitous in the water, air, soil and human bodies.
PFAS chemicals were introduced into a wide variety of consumer goods, such as nonstick cookware, food packaging and fabrics in the 1950s. They are harmful even in tiny concentrations and are associated with serious health conditions including cancers, thyroid disease, liver damage and harm to pregnant women and babies.
The dangers of PFAS chemicals have been widely recognized among public health researchers and the general public over the past decade, but the study showed that 3M and Dupont, the largest producers of PFAS, actively suppressed evidence that the chemicals are hazardous since the 1960s.
Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) analyzed secret industry documents discovered in a lawsuit filed by attorney Robert Bilott, best known for his landmark case against DuPont featured in the film “Dark Waters”
The authors wrote that they hope the timeline of evidence suppression presented in the paper will aid the efforts of people and governments across the world in pursuing legal and legislative action to sue PFAS producers and curb production of the toxic chemicals.
In April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed maximum contamination levels for six PFAS chemicals in drinking water. But public health advocates said the proposal falls far short of what is needed.
There are 12,000 PFAS chemical variations and at least 26 of them — many of which the EPA doesn’t even monitor — were recently identified in drinking water.
Last week, PFAS manufacturers Dupont, Chemours and Corteva agreed to a $1.2 billion deal to settle liability claims brought by public water systems serving the U.S. populations, The Guardian reported.
And Bloomberg News reported that 3M is considering paying $10 billion to settle a lawsuit so it can avoid facing allegations in court that it knowingly contaminated drinking water across the U.S.
Court proceedings were set to begin this week in South Carolina but were put on hold to work out the deal in the test case — one of more than 4,000 against 3M and other chemical companies for water contamination.
It will likely cost upwards of $400 billion to remove PFAS chemicals from the U.S. drinking water supply. And a recent report found the larger cost to society of PFAS, factoring in soil and water remediation, monitoring of pollution and healthcare costs associated with a number of PFAS-related health problems, totals about $17.5 trillion every year.
‘Dozens of instances’ of Dupont and 3M suppressing evidence of harm
The study details exactly what Dupont and 3M knew about the dangers posed by these industrial chemicals and lays out a timeline of the science they suppressed and how they did it.
The researchers used methods previously developed to analyze similar documents from the tobacco industry. They found PFAS producers followed the tobacco industry playbook, suppressing internal studies that revealed health risks and distorting public discourse.
Between 1961 and 2006, they identified dozens of instances where Dupont or 3M scientists identified PFAS toxicity but did not publish the findings or report them to the EPA, which is required by federal law. The researchers tracked communications meant to distort public discourse and how the companies pressured government regulators to set industry standards.
As early as 1961, Dupont found that the chemicals used to create Teflon were known to increase the size of rat liver, even at low doses, and the report indicated that “contact with the skin should be strictly avoided.”
During the 1970s, there were a series of revelations of PFAS toxicity at Dupont. For example, a Dupont-funded lab did a series of research studies finding that Teflon particles could be toxic when inhaled and could cause ulcers. Studies also showed that rats and dogs injected with low doses of the chemicals died.
In the 1980s, Dupont found elevated liver enzymes in their workers, birth defects among babies of plant employees and miscarriages among pregnant women.
They did not make this information public, although in a tacit admission of harm, they removed women of childbearing age from any potential exposure to C8, one of the PFAS chemicals.
In later years, both 3M and Dupont conducted studies that linked PFAS chemicals to prostate, testicular, bladder and kidney cancers.
But the companies did not publish these findings in scientific journals, or share them with the public, regulators or employees, who were particularly at risk.
Instead, they insisted that key PFAS chemicals like C8 were “about as toxic as table salt.” They denied any health risks in internal company memos and publicly, and they funded studies finding no adverse effects on human health from PFAS chemicals.
In 2004, the EPA fined DuPont for not disclosing its findings on perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a class of PFAS chemicals, according to a press release announcing the UCSF findings.
“The $16.45 million settlement was the largest civil penalty obtained under U.S. environmental statutes at the time,” the press release said, “But it was still just a small fraction of DuPont’s $1 billion annual revenues from PFOA and C8 in 2005.”
As recently as 2006, Dupont demanded the EPA certify Teflon as safe and deny any adverse health effects linked to PFOA.
In 2018, it was revealed that the EPA pressured the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to suppress a study showing PFAS chemicals to be even more dangerous than previously thought, The Intercept reported.
It was only this year that the EPA finally proposed legislation placing limits on PFAS in drinking water.
The PFAS producers continue to oppose those proposals. And the federal government has yet to set any enforceable rules, The Guardian reported. But over the last two years, several states have passed new laws prohibiting PFAS in consumer goods like cribs and playpens, fabrics and food packaging.
And states continue to bring lawsuits against the manufacturers of PFAS, The New York Post reported. This month, Maryland Attorney General Anthony G. Brown filed two lawsuits against PFAS manufacturers, including DuPont and 3M, for the alleged contamination of Maryland’s natural resources and adverse effects on residents’ health.
The authors of the study concluded that like Big Tobacco, the major chemical manufacturers have a vested financial interest in suppressing evidence of the harms of their products and manipulating public perception about their safety.
The U.S. regulatory agencies’ failure to demand transparency by these industries means that “we may always be chasing the devil they knew, rather than defending public health from the outset,” they wrote.