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Denialism and Cover-up At Manufacturer Of Forever Chemicals

3M Company Credit: Wikipedia

Forever chemicals are in the news all the time now. A very interesting and well-researched article was recently published by the investigative journalism site ProPublica about Kris Hansen, a chemistry PhD who worked at 3M company. Initially, as part of her job in 1997, she documented that forever chemicals (PFOS, PFAS) were showing up in everyone's blood - both workers at the company, as well as people outside the company. Animals also. But then her work was suppressed, her bosses at 3M convinced her the chemicals were safe, and she continued working there for years.

Also... she was sidelined by her bosses after her initial findings, her job became more limited at the company, and finally she moved to a different area of the company (medical devices). Yet for years she told her husband and herself that the chemicals were safe. Only in 2021, after watching a John Oliver segment on TV about forever chemicals, she finally googled PFOS. But she only left the company in 2022 (after 26 years) when her job was eliminated.

One interesting part to me was - How did she rationalize doing nothing and continue working there for decades? She knew it was appearing in everyone's blood, there was research (animal and human) available showing it caused harms, and yet.... she chose to believe what management was saying (it's safe), stayed silent, and basically buried her head in the sand. Didn't want to know...

Yes, I've seen this elsewhere - when interacting with people in higher level white collar jobs in the pesticide industry. Their salaries are good, their jobs depend on denialism and ignoring scientific research, and so they spout the industry line of "it's safe"..."nothing is proven". So it continues...

A few excerpts from ProPublica: Toxic Gaslighting: How 3M Executives Convinced a Scientist the Forever Chemicals She Found in Human Blood Were Safe

The next morning, anxious to see the results, Hansen arrived at the lab before anyone else. For the first time since she had begun testing blood, some of the samples showed no trace of PFOS. She was so struck that she called her husband. There was nothing wrong with her equipment or methodology; PFOS, a man-made chemical produced by her employer, really was in human blood, practically everywhere.

Hansen’s team found it in Swedish blood samples from 1957 and 1971. After that, her lab analyzed blood that had been collected before 3M created PFOS. It tested negative. Apparently, fluorochemicals had entered human blood after the company started selling products that contained them. They had leached out of 3M’s sprays, coatings and factories — and into all of us.

[She was asked by the article author:] "Perhaps, I wondered aloud, she hadn’t really wanted to know whether her company was poisoning the public.

To my surprise, Hansen readily agreed. “It almost would have been too much to bear at the time,” she told me."

[Her old boss, when interviewed]"..told me, with seeming pride, that one reason he didn’t do more was that he was a “loyal soldier,” committed to protecting 3M from liability."

Between 1951 and 2000, 3M produced at least 100 million pounds of PFOS and chemicals that degrade into PFOS. This is roughly the weight of the Titanic. After the late ’70s, when 3M scientists established that the chemical was toxic in animals and was accumulating in humans, it produced millions of pounds per year. Scientists are still struggling to grasp all the biological consequences.

Average levels of PFOS are falling, but nearly all people have at least one forever chemical in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “When you have a contaminated site, you can clean it up,” Elsie Sunderland, an environmental chemist at Harvard University, told me. “When you ubiquitously introduce a toxicant at a global scale, so that it’s detectable in everyone ... we’re reducing public health on an incredibly large scale.” Once everyone’s blood is contaminated, there is no control group with which to compare, making it difficult to establish responsibility.

New health effects continue to be discovered. Researchers have found that exposure to PFAS during pregnancy can lead to developmental delays in children. Numerous recent studies have linked the chemicals to diabetes and obesity. This year, a study discovered 13 forever chemicals, including PFOS, in weeks-old fetuses from terminated pregnancies and linked the chemicals to biomarkers associated with liver problems. A team of New York University researchers estimated in 2018 that the costs of just two forever chemicals, PFOA and PFOS — in terms of disease burden, disability and health-care expenses — amounted to as much as $62 billion in a single year. This exceeds the current market value of 3M.

Philippe Grandjean, a physician who helped discover that PFAS harm the immune system, believes that anyone exposed to these chemicals — essentially everyone — may have an elevated risk of cancer. Our immune systems often find and kill abnormal cells before they turn into tumors. “PFAS interfere with the immune system, and likely also this critical function,” he told me. Grandjean, who served as an expert witness in the Minnesota AG’s case, has studied many environmental contaminants, including mercury. The impact of PFAS was so much more extreme, he said, that one of his colleagues initially thought it was the result of nuclear radiation.

In 2022, 3M said that it would stop making PFAS and would “work to discontinue the use of PFAS across its product portfolio,” by the end of 2025... But it acknowledged that more than 16,000 of its products still contained PFAS. Direct sales of the chemicals were generating $1.3 billion annually. 3M’s regulatory filings also allow for the possibility that a full phaseout won’t happen — for example, if 3M fails to find substitutes. ... The company and its scientists have not admitted wrong­doing or faced criminal liability for producing forever chemicals or for concealing their harms.

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