3M canva
3M canva

When we think of global threats, we think of catastrophic events like a nuclear war, a pandemic, or an alien invasion on the White House. Fretting about non-stick cookware is often perceived as excessive caution. What makes the Forever Chemical problem challenging to conceptualize is that Forever Chemicals have permeated the entire food and water system globally – so in a way it is too late to worry about the non-stick cookware. Exposure to Forever Chemicals (PFOS) is more about what we don’t see, than what we do see.  

An innocuous Minnesota company, “3M” is responsible for a large percentage of the global contamination of Forever Chemicals. The headquarters of 3M, what once stood for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing when it was founded in 1901, is still headquartered in Minnesota. The campus includes many buildings, some dedicated to the business side and several chemist and manufacturing labs, one chemistry building is dubbed “the nerdy building”. It has taken decades of activism and thousands of lawsuits against 3M to begin the process to pull back it’s manufacturing of Forever Chemicals.

Today, 3M is still producing the same level of toxins as it always has but thanks to the perseverance of some, “in a few years, when the EPA begins enforcing new regulations, local utilities will be required to test their water and remove any amount of Forever Chemicals which exceeds four parts per trillion — the equivalent of one drop dissolved in several Olympic swimming pools. 3M has produced enough PFOS and chemicals that degrade into PFOS to exceed this level in all of the freshwater on earth.”

How Did One Company Pollute The World?

After WWII, 3M hired Manhattan Project scientists to mass-produce chains of carbon atoms bonded to fluorine atoms. This combination yields thousands of versatile chemical compounds that are highly reactive so chemists in that era nicknamed the compounds “the wildest hellcats”. These compounds withstand oil, heat, and water and do not dissolve organically which is why we call them Forever Chemicals. In the decades since, we now know that Forever Chemicals do not dissolve over time but they actually accumulate, building up over time in all the plants and animals in the food system. The lowest levels of Forever Chemicals are found in females who give birth because the Forever Chemicals transfer to the newborn.

In the post-war economic boom 3M thrived with hundreds of everyday inventions like Post-It Notes, which were invented by an employee to mark bible passages. Masking tape, scotch tape, medical tape, lots of other tapes, fast food french fry holders, synthetic grass, many cleaning products, and the rubber boots worn by astronauts in the moon landing are all on a long list of 3M’s inventions. Despite decades of production of these products, the damage globally of using these products is just now becoming common knowledge. What is also becoming clearer, is that 3M has had an idea of the repercussions since at least the 1980s.

“Between 1951 and 2000, 3M produced at least 100 million pounds of PFOS and chemicals that degrade into PFOS. This is roughly the weight of the Titanic. After the late ’70s, when 3M scientists established that the chemical was toxic in animals and was accumulating in humans, it produced millions of pounds per year.”

As early as the 1990’s it became clear to one 3M chemist (whose father had also been a chemist for 3M) that the only way to find a blood sample not contaminated with Forever Chemicals in the world was to find a blood sample from before 3M started producing Forever Chemicals. While the formula has since reached thousands of manufacturers across the world, this discovery pins 3M as the ground floor of a speedy, global contamination. Blood samples from the most remote corners of the world show contamination from Forever Chemicals despite their somewhat recent existence.

A retired chemist from 3M described his role in the beginning of 3M’s investigation into if their chemicals were harmful during the ‘70s and ’80s. In his words, he killed a lot of rabbits with exposure to Forever Chemicals which destroys liver function and creates tumors but despite his warnings, “these idiots were already putting it into food packaging”.

Today, investigative research and legal teams have a better picture of the extent to which 3M continued to produce these chemicals and how much damage the company was aware of. 3M started bringing on small teams of chemists and researchers to investigate the extent of damage on 3M employees, the local ecosystem, and the global impact of these chemicals. These scientists acted in good faith to produce realistic results, all of which indicated Forever Chemicals causing extensive damage. What is being uncovered in 2024 is a sixty-year pattern of 3M using that research, manipulating, and lying to their scientists about the purpose of their research, in order to get ahead of the ball and re-market themselves instead of trying to pull back from their economic reliance on Forever Chemicals.

Today, a consumer can switch out the non-stick frying pan for another alternative, but the real problem is that these chemicals are accumulated the food you’re going to be cooking. Forever Chemicals will never show up as a global invasion because the invasion happened decades ago. The best efforts are moving slowly. In future years we can stop further production of Forever Chemicals but for the Forever Chemicals already in the environment – they will last longer than the diamond of an engagement ring.