Former Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson and a 3M executive are testifying in Washington Tuesday before a congressional subcommittee about a class of chemicals that have contaminated the drinking water of millions of Americans.
They are scheduled to appear before the environment subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform for the third in a series of hearings titled “The Devil They Knew,” a reference to a recent documentary on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
PFAS are a broad category of chemical compounds used in a variety of consumer and industrial products, including water-resistant clothing, nonstick cookware, food packing and firefighting foam.
Known as “forever chemicals,” they don’t break down easily in the environment, and accumulate in the bodies of humans and animals. Studies have linked exposure to PFAS to a number of health effects, including cancer, thyroid problems and developmental issues in children.
PFAS chemicals have made their way into the soil, rivers, lakes and groundwater used for drinking in states across the United States, especially near industrial sites and military bases where they were manufactured, used or disposed.
The House committee’s first PFAS hearing in March focused on the health effects associated with the chemicals. The second, in July, featured people and communities impacted by contamination of drinking water supplies.
Tuesday’s hearing will focus on corporate accountability — holding the companies that manufactured PFAS responsible for the environmental and health damage caused by the chemicals.
Representatives from Minnesota-based 3M, DuPont and its spinoff, The Chemours Company, are scheduled to testify at the hearing.
Minnesota-based 3M produced two compounds — PFOA and PFOS — for decades until discontinuing them in the early 2000s.
Waste containing the chemicals was legally disposed of in landfills in east Twin Cities metro area, where they leached into the groundwater, contaminating the drinking water of several cities.
In 2010, the state of Minnesota sued 3M for natural resource damage. The case settled in 2018, with 3M agreeing to pay the state $850 million.
Denise Rutherford, senior vice president of corporate affairs for 3M, is scheduled to appear before the committee. In a statement, the company said it's looking forward to sharing its perspective and research.
Ahead of hearing, 3M announced some new initiatives related to PFAS, including supporting more research and establishing nationwide regulation of the chemicals.
The company said the initiatives “build upon 3M’s long track record of industry leadership to enhance the sustainability of its products, even while the weight of scientific evidence does not establish that PFAS cause any adverse human health effects at current or past levels typically found in the environment.”
Also on list to testify Tuesday is former Minnesota attorney general Lori Swanson, who oversaw the negotiations that led to the state’s settlement with 3M last year.
Tough questions expected
Representatives testifying from each of the companies are likely to field questions Tuesday about when their companies first knew that the chemicals were toxic — and why they kept making them.
Industry studies that date as far back as the 1960s and ‘70s mentioned signs of toxicity, long before the federal government or the public became aware of the risks. Some of those documents came to light during Minnesota's lawsuit against 3M.
Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs for the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, said it’s “long past due for Congress” to hold the companies accountable.
“These are companies that knew these chemicals were toxic, knew they built up in blood, knew they had a long half-life in the human body, and failed to tell anyone,” Faber said. “They didn’t tell their neighbors, they didn’t tell their workers, they certainly didn’t tell the government officials charged with regulating this risk.”
Committee members also are likely to ask the companies what chemicals they’re are still producing. Chemicals classified as PFAS include more than 4,000 compounds, and research into their health effects is limited.
Jamie DeWitt, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University, testified at the July hearing. She said she’d want to ask the companies whether the PFAS chemicals they are producing are essential to humans’ everyday lives.
“Do they have to be in carpeting? Do they have to be in furniture? Do they have to be in the display of my telephone?” she asked.
“Are they are they truly essential across all of the different categories that the industries that produce them say? Or are there some categories where we could eliminate the use of PFAS because there are less toxic alternatives available?"
Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health, said some manufacturers have switched to making replacement chemicals with a shorter carbon chain, which have been touted as safer because they don’t accumulate in humans and animals as much as their PFAS counterparts. But Birnbaum said they still build up in water and soil over time.
“You’ve heard the term ‘forever chemicals,’ and I think that’s true,” she said. “All of them may not be forever in our bodies, but they are forever in the environment.”
Federal regulations coming?
It’s not yet clear whether these hearings will result in federal legislation. Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced an action plan on PFAS that included beginning the process of setting federal limits on PFOA and PFOS.
But critics don't think the EPA is moving quickly enough. They want to see PFAS-related provisions in a major defense spending bill that congressional leaders will negotiate this month.
They also want to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under federal law, and are demanding that the military phase out the use of firefighting foam that contain PFAS.
But regulations at the federal level wouldn’t likely have much of an impact in Minnesota. The state health department already has set advisory limits for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water that are stricter — that is, the allowable levels are lower — than what the federal government likely would require, said Jim Kelly, manager of environmental surveillance and assessment.
Kelly said his agency continues to monitor scientific research on PFAS, and adjust the values if needed.
“Unless the federal government were to come up with extremely low regulatory values, I don’t think it would mean many changes here in Minnesota,” he said.
While most of the focus has been on humans exposed to PFAS through drinking water, Birnbaum noted that there are other pathways, including with food packaging, consumer products, crops, air ventilation and dust. More research is needed on the effects of those methods of exposure, she said.
Watch: “PFAS Contamination and the Need for Corporate Accountability, Part III”
The hearing is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. Central Tuesday.