In November 2016, substances called perfluorocarbons (PFCs) were found in water wells out by Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Specifically, testers found PFOS and PFOA, chemicals used by the military and others as fire-fighting agents.
The Air Force has gone on record as saying they hosed the chemicals into the soil and dumped it into the sewer system at the base. Tucson Water has shut down the wells in which it was detected. You are not drinking water tainted with the substances.
But shutting down wells cannot be a strategy for addressing the contamination. As was the case with water contamination from TCE (trichloroethylene)and 1,4 Dioxane on Tucson’s south side, the guilty party must be held accountable for remediation.
When a product is sold, it is incumbent on the manufacturer to know that it’s safe for the uses intended. Product-liability cases have been filed and won in numerous situations in which manufacturers were found to have placed into the market products that can hurt people, and worse.
Examples include Philip Morris settling $28 billion in liability for tobacco products, Dow Corning settling for over $2 billion in cases related to breast implants, Remington Arms Co. settling a $15 million consumer suit over rifles that disengaged by accident, and Owens Corning in the familiar $1.2 billion asbestos cases.
“Buyer beware” has its place. It should be “manufacturer beware of litigation” if a corporation foists off on the public products that are unsafe.
In 1948, 3M, or Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co., bought a patent for a process creating what became the PFCs we’re now seeing in our water system. The first application was to create Teflon. 3M’s fluorochemicals were a large reason the company was able to grow to a current worth of over $120 billion.
In 2010, Minnesota filed suit against 3M over the presence of PFOS and PFOA in its water system. The company settled that suit with an $850 million payment to the state. As a part of the case, hundreds of documents, including internal studies, memos, emails and research reports were made public. They clearly demonstrated that 3M was aware of the toxicity of PFCs as far back as the 1970s.
In their own internal studies, research animals died as a result of ingesting the chemicals. Those that lived developed lesions on their spleens, lymph nodes and in their bone marrow. The documents also revealed fish in rivers near 3M plants had the substances in their systems, in many cases also causing death. The company waited 22 years before letting the EPA in on its secret.
Since being made aware, the EPA has continually lowered the health-hazard levels related to PFOS and PFOA. Last year the EPA tried to quash a report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. It’s now out — the report recommends the health-hazard level be reduced from the current 70 parts per trillion (a drop in an Olympic-size swimming pool) to 7 parts per trillion. All of the levels found near D-M far exceeded either of those standards.
It is clear from testimony and hundreds of documents that 3M has understood for decades the nature of its products and the threats they pose to the health of people and to the environment. DuPont has settled hundreds of millions of dollars in damage suits due to its role in distributing the chemicals. But it was 3M that sold the toxic stuff to DuPont. Just as it was 3M who sold it to the Department of Defense and other users of its products.
I have spoken with multiple people from across the country who are involved in litigating against 3M and other manufacturers of PFCs. I have shared the content of those conversations with city leadership.
We cannot allow the continuing closure of wells to be our approach to remedying the contamination.
It’s time to hold 3M and others accountable for being at the front end of the pipeline that resulted in our now having to spend time, money and effort in putting remediation protocols into place.
Just as in other product-liability cases, the people who had guilty knowledge decades ago that their product was unsafe must now pay for cleaning up our system.