Putting the Genie Back in the Bottle: Scotchgard™


Scotchguard™ advertisement, c. 1961

Scotchgard™ advertisement, c. 1961

Scotchgard™ is a 3M product that makes fabrics stain resistant and somewhat water repellent. 3M completely reformulated Scotchgard in May 2000. It turned out that the chemicals used in earlier versions of  Scotchgard were dangerous and persisted in the environment for a long time.

Those chemicals were perfluorinated compounds (“PFASs”), including perfluorooctane sulfate (“PFOS”) and perfluorooctanoic acid (“PFOA”). It’s increasingly clear that these PFOSs are nasty stuff. Even in Scott Pruitt’s world, the EPA says:

Studies indicate that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Both chemicals have caused tumors in animal studies. The most consistent findings from human epidemiology studies are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings related to:

• infant birth weights,
• effects on the immune system,
• cancer (for PFOA), and
• thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS).

Scotchgard was manufactured by 3M at a plant in the Twin Cities. 3M left an incredible mess. 3M disposed of wastes containing PFASs at many locations in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, including at dedicated disposal sites, landfills, and unlined dumps. 3M also discharged wastewater containing PFASs from its manufacturing facility directly into a stream that flowed into the Mississippi River and dumped PFAS-laden waste in close proximity to the Mississippi River, allowing the waste to leach into the river. The State of Minnesota claimed that 3M contaminated four major drinking water aquifers supplying the sole source of drinking water for 125,000 residents.

The State of Minnesota sued 3M. It’s a bigger deal than you’d think: 3M was something of a source of pride to Minnesotans, with a long history of charitable works and was a major employer. The lawsuit was epoch: it lasted seven years, and involved some 27 million pages of documents. There were approximately 200 witness depositions; more than $10 million in tests, fees and costs; over 100 judicial hearings and conferences; in excess of 1,600 court filings; and negotiations lasting 22 hours that resulted in a settlement just before trial was scheduled to begin.

Under the settlement, 3M will pay $890 million, one of the largest environmental settlements in American history and the largest ever as a result of an individual state’s lawsuit. As large as the settlement is, it’s likely not all of the costs of clean up expenses that are going to arise.

While the settlement resolves the State of Minnesota’s claims, other parties still have claims and the documentation created by the Minnesota’s lawsuit has created a kind of library of resources available to future litigants.

But the lesson of Scotchgard and 3M is that the unregulated manufacture and use of chemicals is insanely irresponsible, what ever fantasies Scott Pruitt may have. You cannot get the chemical genies back in to the bottle. We have to live with what ever toxic gunk gets discharged in to the environment. The only sensible way to deal with proposed manufacture of chemicals is to know if they are safe before they go in to products.

Despite what 3M told us, we can’t relax.

 

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