Nearly two decades after manufacturers began phasing out chemicals used in stain repellents and nonstick cookware, an ambitious lawsuit filed by Minnesota’s politically ambitious attorney general is poised to significantly expand the public’s understanding of these chemicals’ environmental and human health risks.
The lawsuit, which seeks to recover damages under Minnesota’s Environmental Response and Liability Act, was filed in against manufacturer 3M Co. in 2010. It is set to go to trial in February after years of discovery, legal maneuvering and time-consuming scientific analysis. Though settlements often scuttle court action in high-profile public-interest cases like this, the public would be better served by letting this legal battle play out.
The spotlight that would come with the court action is especially welcome in Minnesota, where decades of manufacturing this class of chemicals, known as PFCs, contaminated drinking water in the east metro. A court battle would highlight the latest findings from the still-developing body of research.
In addition, some of the world’s top scientists are likely to testify as paid consultants on behalf of Attorney General Lori Swanson and for 3M. Their testimony would break down highly complex scientific analysis into language that a jury could understand, which would also help inform those following the news coverage of the court action.
That audience would be substantial, given that PFCs are found “worldwide in the environment, wildlife, and humans,’’ according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the chemicals are not easily processed out of the body. Studies in laboratory animals have indicated that some types of PFCs can “ disrupt normal endocrine activity; reduce immune function; cause adverse effects on multiple organs, including the liver and pancreas; and cause developmental problems in rodent offspring exposed in the womb,’’ according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. But the agency also states that human studies so far have “failed to find conclusive links.’’
For decades 3M was one of the primary manufacturers of PFCs, and it was the first company to voluntarily begin phasing them out. The company has long disputed that the levels at which the chemicals have been found in the environment cause health risks. “The State’s lawsuit is based on the incorrect premise that the mere presence of these chemicals equals harm,” said William A. Brewer III, counsel to 3M, in a statement provided to an editorial writer. “3M looks forward to bringing all the facts into view. When presented with the facts, the science, and 3M’s environmental record, we are confident that the jury will fully support 3M.”
The case filed by Swanson, a DFLer who is expected to announce a run for governor in 2018, provides an alternative narrative to Minnesotans — one without the financial conflicts inherent in the company’s version. As part of recent court filings arguing that 3M should be liable for punitive damages, Swanson’s office entered two troubling new reports about PFCs’ risk into the public record.
One of them, by Harvard researcher Philippe Grandjean, brings to mind the tobacco industry’s efforts to keep smoking’s harmful health effects under wraps. It alleges that 3M failed to act on evidence it had of PFCs’ potential harm and, moreover, suggests that “3M took active measures to try to conceal such information and steer scientific inquiry away from finding PFCs to be hazardous,’’ according to Brad Karkkainen, a University of Minnesota law professor specializing in natural resource litigation.
The company disputed those conclusions in a recent interview and has an expert report of its own to counter Grandjean. Still, this a disturbing allegation against a company that is a pillar of Minnesota’s business community and a backbone of its economy.
Swanson’s office, which has put a $5 billion price tag on environmental and health damages and costs, is engaged in a worthy but massive legal undertaking. Her office often pursues settlements in high-profile cases. But neither justice nor public health would be well-served by a settlement that would likely be sewn up in secret, leaving questions hanging about 3M and PFC risks. Minnesotans deserve the transparency and illumination a courtroom battle would bring.