PFAS paper mill settlement reflects growing trend

By John Gardella | National Law Review | April 28, 2021

Read the full article by John Gardella (National Law Review)

"Just a few days ago, an $11.9 million settlement was announced in a Michigan lawsuit in which a class of approximately 3,000 plaintiffs alleged that a PFAS manufacturer and a PFAS-using paper mill contaminated drinking water supplies, thereby polluting the environment and placing nearby citizens at increased risk of adverse health effects. The PFAS paper mill settlement is noteworthy not because it is yet another settlement by 3M, one of two prominent chemical companies that manufactured PFAS, but because a business that used PFAS in its manufacturing process found itself yet again needing to settle a costly lawsuit for actions that took place over the course of several decades. Companies of all types (not just paper companies) must understand that this is but one representative example of the type of lawsuits that we have predicted will have significant impacts on company financials as awareness of PFAS issues continues to grow. These impacts will be felt well beyond industries that use PFAS directly in their manufacturing processes, and companies of any type must take a closer look at current or legacy PFAS issues that may plague them in the near future.

What Are PFAS and Why Are They a Concern?

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (“PFAS”) are a class of over 7,000 manmade compounds. Chemists at 3M and Dupont developed the initial PFAS chemicals by accident in the 1930s when researching carbon-based chemical reactions. During one such experiment, an unusual coating remained in the testing chamber, which upon further testing was completely resistant to any methods designed to break apart the atoms within the chemical. The material also had the incredible ability to repel oil and water. Dupont later called this substance PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), the first PFAS ever invented. After World War II, Dupont commercialized PFOA into the revolutionary product that the company branded “Teflon.”

Only a short while later, 3M invented its own PFAS chemical – perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which they also commercialized and branded “Scotchgard.”  Within a short period of time, various PFAS chemicals were used in hundreds of products – today, it numbers in the thousands.

The same physical characteristics that make PFAS useful in a plethora of commercial applications, though, also make them highly persistent and mobile in the environment and the human body – hence the nickname, “forever chemicals.” While the science is still developing regarding the extent of possible effects on human health, initial research has shown that PFOA and PFOS are capable of causing certain types of cancer, liver and kidney issues, immunological problems, and reproductive and developmental harm."