By Carrie Fellner
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This wasn’t your typical gossip around the office water cooler. As two 3M employees met over coffee at the Fortune 500 company’s sprawling corporate headquarters in Minnesota more than 40 years ago, one of them had something startling to get off his chest.
A toxic chemical in 3M’s products, one whispered, had been discovered in blood banks all over America.
Two eagle-eyed scientists had spotted the man-made substance in blood samples and had come knocking on 3M’s doors in 1975, suspecting the answer lay with the Wall Street giant’s popular Scotchgard or Scotchban product lines.
The scientists’ hunch was right, although the proof would take two decades to emerge.
It was only in 1998 that 3M admitted to regulators the forever chemical known as PFOS had entered the blood of people worldwide; it had gone from contaminating heartland America to being found in the most remote corners of the globe and nearly every citizen in Australia.
3M’s plant in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. It was one of the main manufacturing plants for forever chemicals that have contaminated the world. Credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
This masthead can reveal that in 2003 the average Australian adult had levels of PFOS in their blood at 20 times the “safe level” secretly calculated by a scientist working for 3M.
The Australian government is poised to ban PFOS, which has been linked by overseas governments to a slew of adverse health effects, including suppression of the immune system, raised cholesterol, hormone disruption and certain cancers.
World-leading health experts have warned Australians should be concerned at the levels of forever chemicals they have been exposed to historically and the thousands that remain in circulation in everyday household products such as cosmetics and cleaning products.
Fresh revelations about how 3M is alleged to have deceived the world about forever chemicals have emerged as a result of a mammoth lawsuit that 3M settled for $US10.3 billion ($16 billion) in the US in August.
This masthead has obtained a trove of sensitive documents from the case.
They include never-before-reported details of the pivotal conversation by the water cooler, an incriminating Post-it note found in 3M’s internal files and the story of how a man dubbed “Horse Track Jack” became the first outsider to finally learn the truth about the contamination of humankind with forever chemicals.
They also reveal a top 3M executive talked about delaying the publication of a study which suggested forever chemicals were hazardous, arguing they first needed to find a way to cover the “winnie” (an American term for frankfurt) in bread, ketchup and mustard.
Gary Douglas, a partner at New York law firm Douglas and London and the lead trial counsel in a landmark case against 3M Company over the forever chemicals that have contaminated the world’s population. Credit: iKandy Films
Gary Douglas, a partner at New York law firm Douglas and London and the lead trial counsel in the recent case against 3M, said he had been stunned by the company’s apparent effort to hide the contamination of everyone on earth with a chemical made in just a handful of its factories globally, including Cottage Grove at Minnesota and Decatur in Alabama.
“It’s hard to fathom how a chemical manufactured at two factories, two little specks relative to the size of the entire planet, could be the source of so much harm,” he said.
In response to detailed questions from this masthead, a 3M spokeswoman said all the company’s products, including those containing forever chemicals (also known as PFAS), were safe and effective for their intended uses.
“As the science and technology of PFAS, societal and regulatory expectations, and our expectations of ourselves have evolved, so has how we manage PFAS,” she said.
The spokeswoman said 3M was pleased the court had granted preliminary approval for the settlement. “We have and will continue to deliver on our commitments – including remediating PFAS, investing in water treatment, and collaborating with communities,” she said.
Jobs for a trillion chemicals
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of about 14,000 chemicals invented in the 1930s and prized for their stain, water and oil-repelling properties. They are called “forever chemicals” because they never break down in the environment and can linger for years in the human body.
It was $48.5 billion manufacturing behemoth 3M Company that first experimented with using forever chemicals for commercial purposes.
3M’s forever chemical advertisement in 1952.
By 1952 3M believed it was possible to manufacture up to a trillion types of PFAS, but was still floundering to find uses for them. It advertised in trade journals: “Wanted: Jobs for a Trillion New Chemicals”. Then it struck the jackpot.
A type of forever chemical called perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) became the key ingredient in the company’s famous Scotchgard fabric protector as well as Scotchban, a grease-repelling treatment for food packaging that hit the market in 1970.
Forever chemicals had entered the blood of the Australian public by 1975, retrospective studies show. Levels ballooned more than seven-fold over the next two decades.
Average levels in Australians were soon higher than those in the populations of India, Italy, Japan, Brazil, Belgium, Sri Lanka and Peru, although they remained lower than in the US.
By 2003, PFOS peaked in the blood of Australians sampled across Sydney, Wollongong, Newcastle and Canberra at average levels of 20.8 nanograms per millilitre (parts per billion), a University of Queensland study shows.
That concentration was 20 times higher than the “safe” level of 1.05 parts per billion secretly calculated by Dr John Butenhoff while he was a corporate scientist working for 3M and revealed in court documents.
Dr Linda Birnbaum, former director of the US government’s National Toxicology Program, said Australians born up until the early 2000s would be right to be concerned about having been exposed to such concentrations.
“That is a level where multiple effects may be occurring, at least in some people – high cholesterol, thyroid problems, immune effects, kidney and testicular cancers (maybe others), hypertension in pregnancy, reduced fertility, low birth weight babies, etc,” Birnbaum said.
East Carolina University professor Jamie DeWitt pointed out the 20.8 nanogram level would be considered “high risk” according to a 2022 report by the US National Academy of Engineering, Science and Medicine.
“In other words, health care providers should be elevating their standards of care for specific disease risks in patients with this level of PFAS in their blood,” said DeWitt, an expert on forever chemicals.
3M abandoned the manufacture of PFOS in 2002 and levels in Australian blood have plummeted by as much as 82 per cent since.
However, newer formulations of forever chemicals are widespread in dozens of consumer products and are the subject of growing concern by regulatory authorities worldwide that have warned they may cause similar adverse effects.
3M has announced it will phase out all types of forever chemicals by the end of 2025 but at least 11 other companies have taken up production internationally.
Australia’s Department of Health says forever chemicals are today expected to be found in the blood of everyone in the country.
3M’s global headquarters in Minnesota.Credit: Bloomberg
The Australian government is poised to ban the three best-known forever chemicals, PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS.
Departmental officials quietly flagged the ban with the World Trade Organisation in August, shortly after The Sydney Morning Herald called for a royal commission over revelations grave warnings about the chemicals were sounded at the highest levels of the Defence department much earlier than previously reported.
The US and European Union have concluded that high levels of PFAS can increase the risk of some kinds of cancers, suppress the immune system, raise cholesterol, interfere with hormones and fertility and cause developmental effects in children.
“Some negative health effects may occur with concentrations … below EPA’s ability to detect,” the US EPA said last year as it ruled there was no safe level of the chemicals in drinking water.
The Australian government, which has been defending multimillion-dollar litigation over the pollution, contends there is “limited to no evidence of human disease or other clinically significant harm resulting from PFAS exposure”.
Price to be paid
In 2000, 3M officials announced to the world it had come as a “complete surprise” to learn PFOS was in human blood samples worldwide.
The landmark US lawsuit has revealed word was already out at the company’s corporate headquarters decades earlier.
During his recent deposition, Dale Bacon, who worked in 3M’s environmental regulatory affairs unit, recalled colleague Frank Griffith telling him over coffee that PFOS had been found in the blood of the community.
“He shared that with you in this coffee meeting around the water cooler, that’s how you first heard about it?” asked Douglas, the plaintiffs’ trial counsel.
“That’s the way I remember it,” Bacon replied.
“Do you remember when you had this coffee clutch?” Douglas asked.
“When Frank Griffith died in about 1980-something, I would assume it was before that,” Bacon said.
Douglas said it was disturbing that the discovery was the subject of such casual conversations among 3M staff.
“Clearly one could argue this is evidence of a reckless indifference to their fellow Americans and people everywhere,” Douglas said.
By late 1975 the company had privately determined the chemical turning up in the population appeared to be PFOS. It began monitoring levels of forever chemicals in its employees and more closely studying their effects on animals.
A 1978 study on PFOS had to be abandoned when all the monkeys died unexpectedly, and scientists noted the chemical was “considerably more toxic to monkeys than anticipated”.
When retired 3M toxicologist Dr John Butenhoff was recently deposed, he was grilled about that study.
Butenhoff admitted “there isn’t a dose at which there were no effects in this particular study”.
The case offers a window into the angst the findings were causing 3M’s executives.
Lewis Lehr, the former chair and chief executive of 3M, pictured at the company’s Australian headquarters in Pymble in 1985. Credit: Ross Willis
The son of corn farmers from Nebraska, Lewis Lehr rose to become chief executive of 3M in the critical period from 1979 to 1986.
In 1979 Lehr was having reservations about the company’s decision not to report any of its findings about forever chemicals to the US EPA under legislation requiring disclosure of substances that present a substantial risk of injury to health or the environment.
Lehr decided to source second opinions outside 3M. He summoned a team of nine high-ranking employees for a whirlwind trip on the company’s private jet. Renowned scientist Dr Harold Hodge was waiting for them at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco.
Hodge was informed that markers of forever chemicals had been found in the blood of people in rural China and was provided a copy of abnormal findings in 3M employees exposed to forever chemicals, which had been attributed to other causes.
Hodge recommended the carcinogenicity of the chemicals should be examined and warned if they were found to be widespread in the population and had long half-lives, “we could have a serious problem”. That phrase was later deleted from the meeting minutes.
The group flew on to Texas to meet toxicologist Dr Jerry Mitchell. Mitchell warned “some of the symptoms in animals from these 90-day studies are similar to those observed with carcinogens”, a statement also removed from the minutes.
The company had blamed alcoholism after finding elevated liver enzymes in its employees, which can be an indicator of exposure to toxins. Mitchell queried: “Why are there so many (apparent) alcoholics in packaging?”
A 3M committee mulled over the advice received during the trip.
According to the minutes, some committee members were of the view the company could prove it had been diligent in caring for public health; others warned if further studies were not carried out and something went wrong, “all kinds of prices may have to be paid by the committee members and the corporation”.
“Mr Lehr made the decision to not inform the EPA and instead to keep this important matter of public health a secret,” the plaintiffs wrote in a 2022 motion as they fought to obtain Lehr’s private records during discovery.
3M had turned over a single technical lab notebook from Lehr’s tenure, even though nearly 30,000 other documents could be located from the time he was at the company’s helm.
The 3M spokeswoman said the company was committed to providing accurate information about PFAS with appropriate context.
“We provided EPA with significant information about PFAS over the decades, including the results of toxicology studies 3M conducted.
“3M also published many of its findings regarding PFAS in publicly available scientific journals dating back to the early 1980s.”
‘A comedy of errors’
Eventually, 3M’s secret spilt into the public domain in the late 1990s in what lawyers pursuing the company dubbed a “comedy of errors”.
“It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious,” Douglas said.
Bacon was overseeing the highly sensitive work of monitoring levels of forever chemicals in 3M employees.
Overwhelmed by his workload, Bacon outsourced some sampling to Dr Jack Henion at New York’s Cornell University, nicknamed by those acquainted with the case as “Horse Track Jack”.
“Jack was from Cornell but he ran a private little side business where he analysed racehorse blood serum in New York state for dopers and cheaters; is that fair to say?” Douglas asked Bacon during his deposition.
“That was his claim to fame,” Bacon said.
Henion diligently attempted to find some clean samples from a blood bank – also known as “blanks” – to compare to the contaminated worker samples. The penny dropped: there were no clean samples.
Dr Jack Henion, who stumbled on the contamination of the world’s population with forever chemicals when he agreed to conduct some sampling for 3M in 1997.
Henion phoned Bacon urgently to relay his discovery. The news was immediately reported up the food chain at 3M and the company leapt into action, forming committees and calling in lawyers.
“Dale definitely did not win employee of the week that week,” Douglas said.
‘The lid is off’
The following year a committee of 3M scientists, including Bacon, urged management to report to authorities that forever chemicals were in the population’s blood.
Vice president Dr Charles Reich overruled the committee in March 1998, arguing 3M was not in the possession of information which “suggests a substantial risk of injury to human health or the environment”.
Reich had a sudden change of heart two months later, sending a letter to the US EPA disclosing that PFOS was widespread in the environment and human blood.
Charles “Chuck” Reich, a former 3M vice president who ruled that forever chemicals did not need to be reported to regulators. He changed his mind two months later. Credit: Getty Images
In the same year, a Post-it note was attached to a draft manuscript in 3M’s corporate files. It said: “John, now that the lid is off, Chris would like to get this paper out, any problem?”
Douglas alleged the evidence buried in 3M’s corporate files strongly suggested a cover-up.
“It wasn’t oh my god, I can’t believe our product is in everyone’s blood, what should we do?” Douglas said.
“Now that the lid is off suggests cover-up, that’s the plain meaning. Gee the lid is off, I guess we better come clean now.”
In 2000, emails show Reich was concerned that a scientist under contract to 3M was planning to publish a paper suggestive of possible hazards associated with forever chemicals without any accompanying material discussing their “health and safety”.
He warned colleagues it could “set off a chain reaction of speculation that could reopen the issue with the media and move it back to a health issue; something up-to-now we have avoided”.
Reich wanted to delay the publication but said he was concerned the company’s actions could be misinterpreted as trying to “hide the winnie”.
“We just want the winnie in the bun, complete with mustard and ketchup,” Reich wrote in an email to colleagues.
Bacon, who received the email, was grilled about it during his deposition.
“You didn’t want the company to look like you are trying to hide what you know about PFOS by holding back publications, right?” Douglas asked him.
“Correct,” Bacon replied.
“It is even harder to see the weenie itself if it is in a bun with mustard and ketchup?” Douglas asked.
“It very well could be,” Bacon replied.
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