Facing regulatory pressures and lawsuits that threaten billions of dollars in damages, 3M Co. will stop making so-called forever chemicals and aims to eliminate their use in products by the end of 2025.
The announcement marks a historic break with an entire class of chemicals — made up of thousands of variations of the carbon-fluorine bond — first created as part of World War II atomic bomb research. The company developed a variety of products with them over 70 years, including Scotchgard, and they were used in the products of hundreds of other companies, such as firefighting foam and water and stain resistant textiles.
They’re now a liability that could potentially cost $3 million to some $30 billion, Bloomberg Intelligence estimates.
The industrial conglomerate expects to post $1.3 billion to $2.3 billion before taxes as it stops making per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, according to a statement released Tuesday. That includes an estimated expense of up to $1 billion this quarter.
Mike Roman, CEO of 3M, said the decision was in recognition of “accelerating regulatory trends” and growing customer discomfort with the use of PFAS.
“When we look at some of those factors, we don’t see a viable business going forward,” Roman said in an interview. “This is a portfolio decision that will allow us to move to other higher growth opportunities.”
Shares of 3M were down 0.4% to $121.61 as of 9:58 a.m. in New York. The stock is down about 31% this year.
Critics not satisfied
Parties who have urged 3M and other companies to get rid of the compounds criticized what they see as a lack of recognition that the chemicals are linked to serious health problems and should be removed from the environment.
“What’s missing is an explanation or commitment to take responsibility for the damage already done,” Rob Bilott, a partner in the Cincinnati office of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, said in a telephone interview.
Biloott has led several legal challenges over the chemicals, including the one in the Hollywood movie Dark watersand a case against 3M involving PFAS in Minnesota in 2005.
The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization based in Washington DC that has documented the widespread presence of the chemicals in water, said 3M’s actions come too late for people who were unknowingly contaminated.
“Having told everyone – their neighbors, their employees and their regulators – that PFAS are safe while they poison the entire planet, 3M is now vowing to slip out the back door without accountability. Congress and the courts cannot allow this to happen,” the group said in an emailed statement.
Roman said it’s too early to give details on whether the company will reuse plants that currently produce PFAS, but he said 3M would work to find other roles for workers affected by the decision.
Users of products containing the chemical are eager to find alternatives, as the compounds are believed to be nearly impossible to remove and build up in soil, water, and the human body over time. They are said to be associated with numerous health problems, including cancer and liver and kidney problems.
And 3M isn’t the only company involved in litigation over the production and use of PFAS. Other defendants included Tyco Fire Products LP and Chemguard Inc. DuPont Co. and Chemours agreed to a $670 million settlement in 2017 to resolve PFAS cases filed by 3,500 people in Ohio.
3M’s exit from the category comes 20 years after management phased out an early, popular form of PFAS known as PFOS in 2002 under pressure from scientific studies on its potential harms. That shutdown sparked a deluge of some 2,000 lawsuits that could ultimately cost the company billions.
3M’s decision to discontinue production of PFAS also raises questions for the companies that continue to make or use them, and for industrial applications that rely on them.
Roman said 3M was committed to working with customers to find alternative solutions.
The company currently generates about $1.3 billion in annual sales from the production of PFAS, according to the statement, and has a profit margin of about 16% before interest, taxes and other expenses.
Photo: Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg