Conglomerate will remove fluorochemicals from portfolio in a bid to stay ahead of rapidly tightening regulations

US manufacturing giant 3M has decided to remove all per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from its product portfolio and ‘exit all PFAS manufacturing’ by the end of 2025. It’s a significant move for a company that has been a major manufacturer of such compounds for many decades. Currently, 3M estimates that its PFAS products are worth around $1.3 billion (£1.1 billion) in annual sales.

The company will stop making all fluoropolymers, fluorinated fluids, and PFAS-based additives, but will fulfil its contractual obligations during a transition period. 3M says it has already reduced its use of PFAS over the past three years through ongoing R&D.

The compounds have been used and manufactured across the globe since the 1940s, and they have unique characteristics that enable oil, grease and water repellence, as well as high temperature resistance. However, these same unusual physiochemical properties also mean that PFAS are highly mobile, and can bioaccumulate and persist in organisms and the environment. They can leach into soil and groundwater to contaminate drinking water, and environmental exposure to PFAS has been linked with various health problems.

3M explains that its decision is based on ‘careful consideration and a thorough evaluation of the evolving external landscape’. Regulators across the world are tightening rules on PFAS exposure and emissions into the environment. Investors and other stakeholders are also pushing for reduction or phasing out of various PFAS materials.

Will Dichtel, an organic chemist who studies PFAS at Northwestern University in Illinois, welcomed the news, and expressed hope that other PFAS manufacturers and users will follow suit. ‘Within the US, this news should further empower the long, long overdue process of regulating them appropriately (ideally as a class),’ he tweeted.

3M and other PFAS manufacturers face ongoing, expensive litigation over their liability for PFAS contamination throughout the US and elsewhere. For example, in February 2018, 3M paid $850 million to settle a lawsuit with the state of Minnesota. The firm faces thousands more suits accusing it of PFAS pollution.

Rob Bilott, a US attorney who has led lawsuits against 3M, DuPont and other companies over PFAS contamination for over two decades, says the company’s action is too little, too late. ‘3M’s recognition that it should not be spewing these PFAS “forever chemicals” into our world is decades overdue,’ he stated via the nonprofit activist Environmental Working Group. ‘What remains to be seen is whether 3M will ever accept responsibility and pay to clean up the unprecedented global contamination and damage it has already caused, including contamination of drinking water supplies, soil, wildlife and people – all across the planet.’

3M said in its statement that the company ‘will continue to remediate PFAS and address litigation by defending ourselves in court or through negotiated resolutions’.