US Conglomerate Bids Farewell to Harmful Forever Chemicals

Due to increasing regulatory pressures to fight accumulating harmful substances in the environment and our bodies, 3M Company MMM committed to stop manufacturing perfluoralkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the so-called PFAS, and work on discontinuing their use across its product range by the end of 2025. The cost of this commitment is estimated to result in pre-tax charges in the range between $1.3 and $2.3 billion.

Immediate action

The legendary post-it company is among the first big players in the US to take action after recent moves by the US Environmental Protection Agency to tighten rules regarding the use and disposal of PFAS chemicals, all of which aim to hold polluters more accountable, both in terms of the harm caused to their users and their obligation to clean contaminated sites. Last month, 3M and DuPont de Nemours Inc DD were sued by California's attorney general to recover clean-up costs, among other companies. As a reminder, DuPont is the company who invented the PFAS chemical patented as Teflon, the miraculous non-stick pan, but 3M became the main manufacturer of these chemicals.

Investors are prioritizing environmental concerns

3M is also facing billions of dollars in lawsuits alleging that PFAS contained in its products has contaminated rivers and caused a great deal of health problems that include cancer. Led by Aviva Investors and Storebrand Asset Management, investors that manage more than $ 8 trillion in assets wrote to as many as 54 global chemical companies last month, in an effort to pressure them to stop using these chemicals and to increase the transparency of their actions, such as by disclosing the information regarding the hazardous chemicals they use and create.

A public health concern

PFAS received the title of “forever chemicals” because they do not break down easily, they accumulate and pollute the environment over long periods of time and they often remain in people’s bodies for a lifetime, affecting our immune systems, harming our fertility and overall health as studies found them to be potential carcinogens. Consequently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labelled them a “public health concern”, so action on this matter should have been taken much sooner. Meanwhile, 3M CEO, Mike Roman, insists that PFAS can be safely made and used, but sees this moment as merely an opportunity to lead by example in a fast-evolving regulatory environment.

A pivotal moment that demands innovation

Five European countries, namely Denmark, Germany, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands, have been working on a proposal to restrict the use of PFAS. The strategy should be underway as of January next year. In March 2023, scientific committees within the EU's European Chemicals Agency are due to issue assessments of possible restrictions of PFAS in firefighting foams. But, there is so much more to be done.

An immaterial effect

If looked from a purely financial perspective, these actions are relatively immaterial for a corporation such as 3M as its annual sales of manufactured PFAS are about $1.3 billion, which in 2021 made only 3.7% of the group’s 2021 revenues that amounted to $35.4 billion.

A small step for the planet, a huge step for humankind

Patrik Witkowsky, sustainable finance adviser at ChemSec, a non-governmental organization whose mission is to increase regulation of hazardous chemicals, finds 3M’s commitment to be a “big moment” for the chemicals industry as it is the only US company to take action on the matter, along with four more of the 54 world’s largest publicly traded chemical companies that had publicly revealed their phaseout plans of hazardous chemicals. All in all, this is a small step for the severely harmed planet but a major step for the corporate civilization that needs to be reminded of its long-term redemption that it owes to both the environment and its consumers who it’s supposed to serve in return for the profit it makes from them.

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