An unusual federal lawsuit against 3M Co. and other manufacturers of a widely used nonstick chemical demands that the companies pay for nationwide medical studies to measure its health impact on hundreds of millions of people who now carry it in their blood.
The class-action lawsuit was filed last week in U.S. District Court in Ohio by an attorney widely known for his successful litigation against E.I. duPont de Nemours and Co. and other companies that made or used nonstick compounds known as perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs. The compounds were used for decades in firefighting foams, Teflon, Scotchgard and other products and wound up contaminating drinking water in parts of Ohio and West Virginia as well as several eastern Twin Cities suburbs.
3M, which invented the chemical, was one of the world’s primary manufacturers until the early 2000s, when production stopped after it was discovered that the compound had contaminated drinking water near former disposal sites in several east metro communities and the Chemolite plant in Cottage Grove.
Earlier this year, 3M settled a long-standing lawsuit, brought by Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, for $850 million, but it still faces dozens of suits across the country, primarily for contamination of drinking water sources.
The new lawsuit, filed by Cincinnati attorney Rob Bilott on behalf of an Ohio firefighter, goes much further by potentially including everyone in the United States who carries PFCs in their blood — which is virtually all adults. The suit also targets the entire class of chemicals, including the newer so-called short-chain PFCs, which were developed to replace the earlier versions and which are now also the focus of environmental battles in other parts of the country.
“There is tremendous fear, anxiety and uncertainty across the country as to the serious public health threat posed by PFAS contamination,” Bilott said in a statement. “This lawsuit could provide a mechanism for addressing ... those concerns through [an] independent, science-based process paid for by those that actually created the problem — and not by the American taxpayers.”
3M said in a statement that it hasn’t had an opportunity to review the suit.
“Nevertheless,” the statement said, “3M acted responsibly in connection with its manufacture and sale of [PFCs] and will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship.”
Other attorneys who have sued 3M said that such scientific research could be helpful, but the legal strategy is a long shot.
“It would be a tall order to get a judge to award that,” said Aaron Phelps, a Michigan attorney representing homeowners near Grand Rapids, Mich., whose wells were contaminated by a shoe manufacturer that used 3M chemicals. Such medical monitoring cases are usually confined to a specific group of affected people, “not the entire nation,” he said.
The proposed scientific panel would mirror one used in lawsuits against DuPont and the Chemours Co., a DuPont spinoff, in West Virginia and Ohio, which was agreed to by both sides of the litigation.
The so-called C8 Science Panel eventually concluded that PFCs were probably linked to six medical conditions, including testicular and kidney cancer and high cholesterol. Other studies have linked PFCs to higher rates of childhood cancers, infertility and low birthweight babies.
3M and other manufacturers dispute those conclusions and say studies have produced no evidence that PFCs are harmful at concentrations found in the environment. Nonetheless, the findings of the C8 Panel were key to the successful lawsuits against DuPont and Chemours that followed, as well as the final $671 million settlement in 2017.
The class-action complaint says the manufacturers have knowingly exposed the public to the potentially toxic chemicals for decades, and those exposed should not have to wait for their diseases and medical conditions to develop before research is funded.
Moreover, the companies have more than sufficient assets to pay for medical research that was made necessary by products that generated billions of dollars in revenue, the lawsuit said.
In addition to 3M, other manufacturers named as defendants in the case include DuPont, the Chemours Co. and Daikin Industries Ltd.