California’s lawsuit against “forever chemicals” makes bold demands for contamination compensation

The state is suing 18 companies including 3M and DuPont
Chemicals are in our waters forever.
Chemicals are in our waters forever.
Photo: Mark Ralston (Getty Images)
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California is suing 18 companies over “staggering” damage caused by manufacturers of PFAS, substances also known as “forever chemicals.”

Some of these companies, including 3M, infamous for creating the chemical C8 for Scotchgard, and DuPont, which used C8 in nonstick Teflon products, were aware of dangerous chemicals’ “toxicity, persistence, and prevalence in humans but deliberately misled the government and the public” for decades, according to a lawsuit filed in the Alameda County Superior Court on Thursday (Nov. 10).

California Attorney General Rob Bonta says the companies are liable for “hundreds of millions of dollars” in penalties and cleanup costs across California for continuing to make the chemicals while knowing, and yet seeking to conceal, their danger.

Over a dozen states are suing PFAS manufacturers for contaminating drinking water or natural resources like lakes. The California suit, which was filed after a two year-long investigation of consumer and environmental law violations, is the first statewide legal action of its kind as it targets a variety of PFAS sources, such as wastewater treatment plants and landfills, and seeks medical monitoring in communities that have been exposed.

PFAS threat to California, in the attorney generals’ words

“PFAS are as ubiquitous in California as they are harmful. As a result of a decades-long campaign of deception, PFAS are in our waters, our clothing, our houses, and even our bodies…We won’t let them off the hook for the pernicious damage done to our state.” —California Attorney General Rob Bonta

What are these “forever chemicals”?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that can be found in several everyday items like cleaners, stain- and water-repellent textiles, leather, packaging like sandwich wrappers, paints and waxes, fire-fighting foams, and wire insulation. Because their molecules have strong carbon-fluoride bonds, they do not degrade easily and pollute the environment. The chemicals, which most Americans have been exposed to, have been found to affect reproductive and thyroid levels. They’ve also been linked to cancer, developmental defects, and other health problems.

What are 3M and Dupont saying?

Minnesota-based 3M invented PFAS and has used it in the production of its Scotchgard brand of stain repellant, food packaging, textile treatments, fluorosurfactants, and additives, among many others. Even after 3M stopped manufacturing PFOS in the 2000s, the company allegedly tried to distort scientific data to minimize the ill-effects. In response to the legal action, 3M said it “acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS and will defend its record of environmental stewardship.”

Delaware-based DuPont, which restructured its company with multiple spin-offs in the last seven years to reportedly dodge taking responsibility and paying heavy damages, says it became a “new multi-industrial specialty products company” in 2019, which has never manufactured PFOA, PFOS or firefighting foam, and is this “improperly named in litigation.” The complaint consistently refers to “Old Dupont” when laying out its allegations.

PFAS, by the digits

1940s to early 2000s: years PFAS were largely produced

1000+: years some PFAS will take to disintegrate

5,000: PFAS-related complaints in 40 courts, with 193 defendants in 82 courts in 2021

2,000+: PFAS-associated lawsuits by individuals, water authorities, states and cities 3M faces, which could cost it $30 billion, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Holly Froum

$850 million: the settlement 3M reached with the state of Minnesota after its attorney general sued the company for allegedly discharging PFAS and contaminating the state’s natural resources in the Twin Cities area in 2018

203: PFAS-related bills proposed in 31 states. The US Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue the first enforceable drinking water regulations for PFAS in public water systems this year.

200 million: Americans drinking water laced with PFAS

$400 billion: the cost of removing PFAS for drinking water nationwide in the US

Watch this: Dark Waters

The 2019 American legal thriller film starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway dramatizes the environmental attorney Rob Bilott’s fight against DuPont. Bilott won a $671 million settlement on behalf of 3,500 plaintiffs. The movie is based on the 2016 New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich.

DARK WATERS | Official Trailer | In Theaters November 22

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