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3M has long known it was contaminating the US food supply

What 3M knew about PFAS
REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Aware of dangers.
By Zoë Schlanger
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Multinational manufacturer 3M, which developed two types of industrial chemical now found in the blood of virtually all Americans, has known since 2001 that those chemicals were entering the food supply, according to a newly surfaced study.

That year, the company sponsored a study of several types of food from around the US. The study surfaced this week, when the Intercept’s Sharon Lerner reported that the document was on file with the US Environmental Protection Agency. 

3M made Scotchgard and other non-stick, waterproof, or stain-resistant products using PFOA and PFOS, two chemicals in a class known as PFAS. Production of Scotchgard ended after 2000. In 2001, 3M funded the study to test food samples from six US cities. High levels of the compounds were found in ground beef, milk, green beans and apples.  The contaminated food came from Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia.

In a statement to Quartz, 3M said it published the report in 2001 and “shared this report with the EPA within seven days,” adding, “This report is one of thousands of documents we have placed in the public domain related to the study of PFAS chemistries. We will continue to engage with members of our communities, elected officials and regulators to share information about these chemistries,” 3M wrote.

What 3M knew about PFAS

As Lerner has reported, 3M knew as early as the 1970s that PFAS was accumulating in human blood, and conducted experiments on rats and monkeys that led the company to believe the compounds “should be regarded as toxic.”

PFAS do not degrade in the environment. Decades of use has created a widespread and ongoing contamination crisis. At this point, most people in the US have been exposed to chemicals in the PFAS family, of which there are as many as 5,000, and water supplies serving tens of millions are likely contaminated as well. The revelation about PFAS entering the food supply, however, is a relatively new addition to the roster of ways people have been exposed.

PFAS chemicals have been linked to a range of health risks including cancer, thyroid disease, elevated cholesterol, immune-system issues, and developmental problems in fetuses.

Both 3M and DuPont have ceased production of PFOA and PFAS in the US, but DuPont continues to manufacture it in China. In Brazil, contamination is widespread due to a popular pesticide that degrades into PFAS. In Jordan, researchers found PFAS in women’s breast milk at levels more than double the advised US health level. American dairy farmers have found PFAS in their milk. Other chemicals in the PFAS family, including GenX, continue to be manufactured in places like North Carolina.

Decades of widespread use of PFAS for everything from waterproofing clothes to firefighting foam has made the exposure global: Health issues arising from PFAS are estimated to cost Europe 50 billion euros per year. A UN committee responsible for toxic chemical policy agreed to ban the compounds this year (the US is not party to the pact).

PFAS back in the news

Word of the 19-year-old 3M study comes a week after nonprofit Environmental Working Group published a photo of a poster containing unreleased US Food and Drug Administration findings about PFAS in food. The agency detected PFAS in chocolate cake, meat, seafood, sweet potatoes, and pineapple. It was the first known test of food for PFAS by the FDA.

After EWG’s poster release, the FDA published its findings along with a press release stating that the “FDA does not have any indication that these substances are a human health concern” at the levels detected, adding that the “science surrounding the potential health effects of PFAS is developing” and “current evidence suggests that the bioaccumulation of certain PFAS may cause serious health conditions.”

“However, with the decrease in production and use of certain PFAS, levels in humans in the US have been declining,” the FDA added.

As Lerner reports, Rob Bilott—whose 1999 lawsuit against DuPont on behalf of residents near its Teflon plant in West Virginia put PFAS contamination on the map—wrote a June 11 letter to the FDA asking whether it knew about 3M’s food study before now and if how long officials knew there were high levels of the compounds in food.

The FDA said in a statement that it has received Bilott’s letter “and is reviewing it at this time.”

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