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PFAS Cover-Up: How 3M Hid Risks of Forever Chemicals & “Gaslit” Scientist Who Tried to Sound Alarm

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Image Credit: Haruka Sakaguchi for ProPublica (Left), Doug Wallick (Right)

As public concern grows about the health and environmental impacts of so-called forever chemicals, a new investigation by ProPublica and The New Yorker reveals that 3M, the American manufacturing giant, discovered and concealed the risks of these toxic substances for decades. PFAS are used in everyday products, from nonstick cookware to food packaging, but take decades or longer to break down in the body and environment. They have been found in the blood of almost every person in the United States and are linked to serious health effects. Investigative reporter Sharon Lerner says 3M knew as early as the 1970s that forever chemicals were dangerous even in small amounts, but kept those findings secret and “gaslit” one of its own scientists, Kris Hansen, who later raised concerns about forever chemicals in human blood samples. “Her direct bosses had been aware of the presence of this chemical in blood, even though they … appeared to act surprised when she brought her findings,” says Lerner. “They knew all along that what she was finding was true.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We look now at so-called forever chemicals, used in everything from nonstick pans to food packaging. They accumulate in the human body and environment and have been found in the blood of almost every person in the United States. They are also toxic and have been linked to serious health effects. The danger of forever chemicals, commonly called PFAS, has been known for decades, but it wasn’t until just last month that the Environmental Protection Agency set a drinking water standard to reduce exposure in tap water.

AMY GOODMAN: Now a new report tells the story of a scientist who worked for the manufacturer 3M, which uses PFAS in many of its products, like Scotchgard and Teflon.

For more, we’re joined by ProPublica’s Sharon Lerner. Her new joint report with The New Yorker is headlined “How 3M Discovered, Then Concealed, the Dangers of Forever Chemicals: The company found its own toxic compounds in human blood — and kept selling them.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Sharon. I mean, this is just an amazing story, that almost everyone on Earth has these toxic chemicals in them. Can you tell us the story of the former 3M chemist Kris Hansen and what you discovered through your conversations with her, though you’ve been covering this issue for a decade?

SHARON LERNER: Yes. Thank you for having me on.

I have been covering this issue for quite some time, since 2015, and so I was aware that 3M — some scientists at 3M had been aware that PFAS, which is one of these class — the larger class is called PFAS, or forever chemicals. Basically, a scientist at 3M in the ’70s had learned that PFAS was in the blood of the general public. And I knew that. And some others knew that from court documents that came out a few years ago. And I had written about that a while back.

What this piece does is kind of dig into how this giant company had kept this secret for decades. And it’s something I had wondered about for — you know, since I began reporting on this. How do you keep something like that, you know, away from the public? And I had tried to speak with people inside the company, and with no luck for many years. And then a scientist named Kris Hansen reached out to me and told me that she had been working in the environmental lab in the 1990s at 3M and that she had been tasked, she had been asked to look at blood samples from the general public and see what was in it. And she had discovered PFAS. And, of course, in telling me this story, I realized, “Wait a minute. Of course.” It all became clear that 3M had kept this information from its scientists, as well.

And so, she told of the story of discovering this, bringing her findings to her bosses and being essentially gaslit, being told, you know, “You must be wrong, and your science seems flawed, and there are problems with the machinery,” and that kind of thing. And then she eventually discovers that the company had known earlier.

And so, in writing this story, you know, she brought to me a lot about the inner workings of 3M. And then I kind of was able to take her story and go a little bit further. When she came to me, she hadn’t been aware who at the company knew about this, if anyone, you know, of the people she was working with. And I was able to determine that her direct bosses had been aware of the presence of this chemical in blood, even though they had assigned her this task and then appeared to act surprised when she brought her findings to them.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Sharon, could you explain: What are the products that 3M uses that are so widely purchased and used? And what are the other companies — there are a number; 3M is not, by any means, the only one — the leading companies in the U.S. using PFAS?

SHARON LERNER: Right. So, PFAS is a class of compounds. 3M was sort of the — led the way. They created PFOS and PFOA, another compound that was widely used. Both PFOS and PFOA are no longer produced. But the class contains like thousands of compounds, that are made now by many companies.

3M has pledged to stop making the entire class of chemicals by the end of 2025. When they made this announcement in 2022, they acknowledged having more than 16,000 products that contain them. So, that’s just at one company, 3M.

So, folks from the industry have told me they’re in every car, in every cellphone. They’re in pretty much any product you can think of. Famously, we think of them as coating pans like Teflon, which was produced by DuPont. But they’re really just in — you know, they’re ubiquitous. And so, for 3M, the big products were Scotchgard, which is a fabric coating. In the early years, they also used it in food packaging and also in a firefighting foam that became incredibly widely used both by the U.S. military, militaries around the world, and airports.

AMY GOODMAN: In, I mean, the story you tell of Kris Hansen, the scientist, being told to compare the blood of workers at 3M, which were clearly contaminated, and then just, you know, compare it to the larger population, they didn’t expect, she thought, to find this, where everything she tested in the larger population was contaminated, all the blood. And so, the higher-ups at 3M said to her her equipment must be contaminated, or she must have done it wrong, when in fact — and this is the key point, Sharon, as we begin to wrap up — they knew all along that what she found was true. Can you talk about that?

SHARON LERNER: Yes, that’s exactly right. They knew all along that way she was finding was true. And strangely, as you said, she found it everywhere. So, it was in animals, all the — she tested a number of different kinds of animals — and in all the people, from all the blood banks around the country she tested. Eventually, she began to test historical samples. And it was only in doing that that she was able to prove that all these positive tests for PFOS were really positive, because, you know, she was able to find blood that had been — samples that had been taken before 3M products were on the market. And that was really the way that she was able to find proof that the positive samples, they really did contain the chemical.

AMY GOODMAN: And the problem with these chemicals, what they cause, Sharon? We just have less than a minute.

SHARON LERNER: Well, they’re linked to many, many different health outcomes. The EPA, in their regulation on drinking water standards, just said that they are likely to cause cancer, that no level is safe. But they’re linked to all sorts of outcomes, including developmental, increased levels of risk for all sorts of thyroid diseases, liver outcomes, immune suppression. It’s really wide-ranging.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us and really encourage people to read your pieces in The New Yorker and ProPublica. Sharon Lerner, an investigative journalist who covers health and the environment for ProPublica. Her new joint report with The New Yorker is “How 3M Discovered, Then Concealed, the Dangers of Forever Chemicals: The company found its own toxic compounds in human blood — and kept selling them.”

That does it for our show. And a very special congratulations to our senior video producer Sam Alcoff on his wedding yesterday to his longtime partner Anna Gold. Oh, and congrats to their children, Arthur and Nina.

That does it for our program. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, with Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Messiah Rhodes, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Hana Elias. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude, Dennis McCormick, Matt Ealy, Anna Özbek, Emily Andersen and Buffy Saint Marie Hernandez. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, for another edition of Democracy Now!

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