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3M and Scotchgard: PFOS in 'clean' blood samples

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"It was a complete surprise that it [PFOS] was in the blood bank supplies."
- Charles Reich, Executive Vice President of Specialty Material Markets for 3M, The Washington Post, May 17, 2000

In the EPA documents, 3M reports that a 1976 study identifying perfluorinated compounds in people "was a stimulus for investigation and subsequent medical surveillance of employees in fluorochemical productions, including those [like 3M] producing POSF based materials [a precursor to PFOS chemicals]." (view entire document) 3M tested for organic fluorines in workers' blood at least as early as 1976, and for PFOS in blood beginning in 1979, when they quantified levels in the blood of 5 workers at their Decatur, Alabama, plant. (view entire document)

Two decades ago, 3M knew that perfluorinated chemicals persisted in the human body for long periods of time, evidenced by a 1980 publication by 3M's Medical Director that estimated a half-life of between 365 and 530 days for perfluorinated chemicals. (view entire document)

When organic fluorine levels in workers' blood showed a steep increase beginning in about 1983, 3M medical staff reacted with concern: "The test results that were reviewed at our meeting seem to substantiate a trend that has been developing over the past 12-18 months - a tendency for these levels in a number of people to no longer show the previous pattern of decline, in fact, a fair number are now demonstrating an increase in blood fluorine levels." The physician adds that, unless the trends change, "we must view this present trend with serious concern. It is certainly possible that... exposure opportunities are providing a potential uptake of fluorochemicals that exceeds excretion capabilities of the body." (view entire document)

3M's half-life calculations in the 1980s were based on total organic fluorine levels in their Cottage Grove, Minnesota plant where workers' exposures were primarily to PFOA, not PFOS. The record shows no similar half-life calculations for PFOS exposures in the Decatur, Alabama facility.

Between 1972 and 1989, nine studies were published concerning levels of organic fluorines in blood from the general population. (view entire document) 3M's recent submissions to EPA argue that PFOA found in 1976 was probably misidentified, and was more likely PFOS. The point is moot, though, from the perspective of corporate responsibility, as 3M's domain encompasses both groups of chemicals. 3M apparently performed no studies of the general population for any of its perfluoro chemicals following any of the studies in the 1970s and 1980s.

But then in the summer of 1997, 3M found PFOS not only in workers' blood, but also in supposedly clean blood - samples from blood banks that were to be used as control samples to the workers' blood. This finding would later lead to the discovery of ubiquitous PFOS contamination in the general population and wildlife.

3M may not have wanted to find PFOS in blood banks in 1997. But with no less than nine earlier studies that found organic fluorines in the general population - findings 3M took seriously enough to begin monitoring its workers - it was disingenuous, at best, for the company to claim that the discovery was "a complete surprise."

3M's semantic deceptions didn't stop there. In a May 18, 2000 article in The New York Times, 3M's Medical Director, was asked how PFOS gets into human blood: " 'That's a very interesting question," he said. 'We can't say how it gets into anybody's blood.' "

In fact, 3M knew very well how PFOS could enter the human bloodstream.

  • 3M knew that PFOS chemicals were used in packaging for a very wide array of foods and that the compounds are readily absorbed through the digestive system into the blood. (view entire document)(view entire document)

  • 3M knew that millions of pounds of Scotchgard products had been sprayed on furniture, clothes and carpets. After the phaseout was announced, a 3M consultant published a report showing that an estimated "34 percent of the product expelled from the [Scotchgard] can is initially lost as waste to the air," where anyone could inhale it. (view entire document) Nonetheless, nothing in the public record indicates that 3M conducted studies to determine exposure levels for PFOS among the millions of manufacturing and retail workers around the world who routinely sprayed or otherwise applied Scotchgard to carpet, clothing, furniture and many other products for decades.

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last updated: march.27.2009

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