California Attorney General Rob Bonta on Thursday filed a lawsuit against 3M, DuPont and 16 other chemical companies, saying a class of substances they have made for decades known as “forever chemicals” are responsible for widespread pollution and public health risk.
Bonta, who filed the lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court, said 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 of their danger yet concealing it. California joins a number of states in taking action against the chemicals, which are not currently regulated by the federal government.
“For decades manufacturers were aware of the toxicity of these chemicals, persistence and prevalence in humans,” Bonta said at a news conference on the San Francisco waterfront. “But they chose to deliberately mislead the government and the public.”
The synthetic chemicals — known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — are used in thousands of products.
In some studies, they have been linked to increased risk of high blood pressure in pregnant women, developmental delays in children, including low birth weight, and the increased risk of some cancers, including prostate, breast, kidney and testicular cancers. They also have been shown to reduce the immune system’s ability to fight off infections.
First discovered in the 1940s when DuPont invented Teflon for non-stick pans, PFAS have been valued by the industry for their resistance to water, stains and heat, along with other properties. They have been used for years in firefighting foams and continue to be used in clothing, rain jackets, furniture, carpeting, paints, electronics products and many other commonly sold goods.
The chemicals have extremely stable carbon-fluorine bonds, which means they do not biodegrade easily in the environment, hence the nickname “forever chemicals.” They have been found across California and other states in soil, along with lakes, streams, bays and rivers, and also in fish, wildlife and in trace amounts in the bloodstreams of people.
One of the largest chemical companies named in the suit said Thursday it had done nothing wrong.
“3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS and will defend its record of environmental stewardship,” said Carolyn LaViolette, a spokeswoman for 3M, which is based in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Similarly, Dan Turner, a spokesman for DuPont, based in Delaware, called the lawsuit “without merit” and said “We look forward to vigorously defending our record of safety, health and environmental stewardship.”
In recent years, the chemicals have raised growing alarms and have become a major political and financial liability for chemical companies.
Human exposure to PFAS can come from drinking contaminated water, eating contaminated food, inhalation or contact with contaminated dust. In most cases, the amounts are microscopic, measured in parts per trillion or parts per billion.
3M has said the studies that critics have used are misleading because they were focused on people with unusually high levels of exposure, such as workers years ago in factories where the products were made or in lab animals with much higher concentrations than are found in groundwater and the general population.
“The weight of scientific evidence from decades of research does not show that PFOS or PFOA causes harm in people at current or past levels,” 3M says of two of the most controversial PFAS chemicals.
In 2018, 3M agreed to pay the state of Minnesota $850 million to settle a $5 billion lawsuit over drinking water contaminated by PFOAs and related chemicals.
Last year, California lawmakers banned the use of PFAS in paper products used in food packaging and food wrapping. In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law banning them in cosmetics and textiles, starting Jan. 1, 2025. Maine has gone the farthest, banning them entirely starting in 2030.
Because there are roughly 9,000 different compounds of PFAS chemicals, regulators are still trying to discern which chemicals at what levels are most harmful. Last year, the Biden administration’s EPA announced it would regulate two of the most controversial PFAS chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — in drinking water and would release standards for them by 2023.
Bonta, in a 79-page civil complaint, said 3M, DuPont and the other companies had engaged in negligence, fraud and unlawful business practices.
The lawsuit claims the companies had studies dating back to the 1950s showing that the chemicals could be absorbed in the human bloodstream and were unusually persistent in water. Some of the companies have stopped making certain products, including some types of firefighting foam, or reformulated their chemical composition, such as with 3M’s Scotchgard, a product applied to fabric, furniture and carpets to protect them from stains.
Technology does exist to clean PFAS from groundwater and other water sources.
Bonta’s lawsuit asks the court to force the companies to set up a fund to investigate and cleanup PFAS pollution in California. It also asks that the companies be required to pay for environmental testing, medical monitoring, public noticing and other costs that could occur in areas with high concentrations, such as military bases or fire fighter training areas.
Environmentalists said the lawsuit was overdue.
“Those responsible for polluting our environment and our bodies with PFAS,” said attorney Avinash Kar, with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, “particularly PFAS manufacturers who knew about these impacts, hid it from the public, and profited from it, should shoulder a fair share of the costs.”
The lawsuit concerns focuses on seven common types of PFAS: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA); perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS); perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS); perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS); perfluorohexanoic acid (PFHxA); perfluoroheptanoic acid (PFHpA); and perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA).
- California files major lawsuit to clean up chemicals it calls “toxic and harmful to human health and the environment”
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