3M settles ‘forever chemical’ contamination suits with public water systems for billions

The company 3M announced a tentative settlement with public water systems for more than $10 billion dollars to resolve the water providers’ claims against the firm over toxic “forever chemical” contamination.

3M said Thursday that it had entered into the class settlement with public water suppliers that detect chemicals belonging to a group known as PFAS or that may do so in the future.

PFAS, which stand for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been produced by industry for decades and are found in certain types of firefighting foam and a variety of household products.

“We think this is a significant step to remediating the nation’s water and stopping something that was started really 50 years ago with the introduction of these chemicals in firefighting foam and all other products,” Paul Napoli, who serves as co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs, told The Hill.

press release from the company said it will pay out $10.3 billion, however, an SEC filing from the firm said that it will pay out a total of between $10.5 billion and $12.5 billion.

This discrepancy was likely due to the fact that 3M was presenting the current value of the settlement, while the $10.5 billion – $12.5 billion range reflects what they would actually have to spend over the next 13 years, according to Napoli. The final amount, he explained, will depend on how many water providers come forward.

There are thousands of types of PFAS, a group of chemicals that have long been manufactured by 3M and other companies such as DuPont. These substances have been linked to a variety of illnesses including kidney and testicular cancer and thyroid disease.

PFAS can be found in a wide range of products, including Teflon pans and waterproof makeup, as well as a specific kind of firefighting foam, the latter of which the cases settled Thursday pertained to.

PFAS have taken on the nickname “forever chemicals” because they persist and accumulate in the human body instead of breaking down. They have become prolific over the years and can be found in the blood of 97 percent of Americans.

Thousands of cases have been consolidated before a federal judge in South Carolina, against the manufacturers of aqueous film form foam (AFFF), which is used to fight jet fuel-based fires at Air Force bases, airports and industrial sites.

Among the complainants are water providers, municipal property owners, personal injuries, medical monitoring cases for individuals exposed to the substances but not yet ill. Only the first category on this list was included in the current settlement.

“We intended for the water provider cases to be the first to be resolved because that’s sort of cutting the cancer off at the earliest stages possible,” Napoli told The Hill.

“Now we’re going to have to deal with the systemic repercussions of the contamination,” he said.

Having resolved this initial settlement with the water providers, Napoli said that there still remain another half a dozen players in the water provider space — as they weren’t specified in the trial as potential responsible parties.

“We’re in the process of identifying cases that will bring to the forefront these other remaining manufacturers of firefighting foam,” Napoli said.

“Simultaneously, we’re in the process of picking personal injury bellwether cases,” he added, noting that he expects those to go to trial in summer or fall of 2024.

Given the enormous number of cases in this multidistrict litigation, at each step of the way, the judge needs to select so-called “bellwether” cases that are representative of others in their category.

The judge, Napoli explained, is choosing 24 cases for kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis and thyroid disease incidences.

“We’re advocating to try a group of them all at once. The defendants are going to advocate to try one at a time,” Napoli said.

Nonetheless, Napoli expressed confidence in the fact that science has evolved a lot over the past few years — enabling federal, university and international studies to find new connections between illness and elevated levels of PFAS.

Toward the beginning of the multidistrict litigation process several years ago, Napoli said that he would be largely adhering to the results of the “C8 Science Panel” — completed in 2012 following the settlement of a PFAS exposure case in Parkersburg, W.Va.

That panel established a link between PFAS and diagnosed high cholesterol, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

Asked whether he thought he could now prove connections to diseases not included in that decade-old panel, Napoli’s response was “a hundred percent.”

The attorney attributed his certainty to the evolution of precision science at a cellular level, specialized medicine, retrospective studies and an increase in blood testing for PFAS levels.

For its part, 3M said Thursday that the suit impacts public water systems that provide water to a majority of Americans. The company also said that the agreement is subject to court approval.

Companies DuPont, Chemours and Corteva reached a separate tentative settlement with the water providers totaling nearly $1.2 billion.

The 3M settlement comes as the first case in the class was recently slated to head to trial as a bellwether case. The trial was postponed as parties were closing in on a deal.

3M Chairman and CEO Mike Roman, in a written statement, called the settlement “an important step forward” and noted that the company has said it will stop manufacturing PFAS by the end of 2025.

Napoli likewise expressed his satisfaction with the results of the settlement, while reiterating that there are still six defendants left that he believes will need to pay additional money.

“This is the sixth largest settlement in the history of the United States,” he said. “And it’s only a piece of the pie.”

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