3M to Stop Making, Discontinue Use of ‘Forever Chemicals’

3M Co.

MMM -0.83%

said it would stop making the so-called chemicals forever and stop using them by the end of 2025, as criticism and litigation grow over the chemicals’ alleged health and environmental impacts.

3M Chief Executive Mike Roman said the decision was influenced by increasing regulations on chemicals known as PFAS, and a growing market for substitute options.

“Customers are taking note of the PFAS regulations. They are looking for alternatives,” Mr. Roman said in an interview. “We are finding other solutions that have the same properties,” he said.

The company’s operations involve chemicals used to make cookware, food packaging and other consumer and industrial products. 3M has estimated its current annual sales of chemicals to total about $1.3 billion.

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are often called “permanent chemicals” because they take so long to break down in the environment. These chemicals include very durable compounds long prized by manufacturers for their resistance to heat, and their ability to repel water, grease and stains.

In recent decades, research has linked exposure to some forms of chemicals to health problems such as kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease and high cholesterol, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Synthetic compounds have also been found in drinking water, including some municipal systems and private wells, as well as in rainwater around the world.

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Regulators and environmental groups have targeted the chemicals, and thousands of lawsuits alleging contamination and illness have been filed in recent years against 3M and other manufacturers.

3M stopped producing some types of PFAS chemicals in the early 2000s, but continued to make other types, which the company said could be produced and used safely. 3M said Tuesday it would stop making all fluoropolymers, fluorinated liquids and additive products based on PFAS by the end of 2025.

The company also said it would stop using PFAS across its products by the end of 2025, saying it had already reduced its use of the substances over the past three years.

Shares of 3M were down about 0.5% in midday trading, while major U.S. stock indexes were up slightly. The company’s shares have fallen about 29% so far this year, compared with a 19% decline in the S&P 500 stock index.

The EPA said there are approximately 600 PFAS chemicals in commercial use today. The American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, said Tuesday that PFAS is integral to thousands of products in technologies such as semiconductors, batteries for electric cars and 5G technology.

The group said its members are dedicated to the responsible production, use, management and disposal of PFAS chemicals, and that it would continue to work with the EPA toward policies that protect human health and allow the chemicals to continue to be used.

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3M’s exit from PFAS was seen as a victory by environmental groups that for years have raised alarms about the chemicals.

Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said he didn’t think 3M would ever be fully responsible for the chemicals. “But by leaving the market, they sent a powerful signal to other polluters that it’s simply unaffordable to poison us all,” Mr. Faber said.

According to RBC Capital Markets research, 3M’s net sales of PFAS chemicals represent about 4% of the company’s total annual sales. “This is a step in the right direction for 3M to give full regulatory control to PFAS chemicals,” RBC analysts wrote in a note to investors Tuesday.

As it exits the chemicals manufacturing business, 3M said it expects to incur pretax charges of $1.3 billion to $2.3 billion, including a charge of $700 million to $1 billion in the current quarter. Manufacturer based in St. Paul, Minn. said it intends to fulfill current contract obligations during the transition period.

In August the EPA proposed designating two forms of PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the federal superfund law. The American Chemistry Council and companies like 3M opposed the move, saying it wasn’t based on the best available science and wouldn’t speed up remediation of contaminated sites.

Industry analysts said plant cleanup costs are likely to increase as the EPA uses broad discretion to impose cleanup requirements under the Superfund designation. They said the hazardous substance designation could also hinder sales growth for PFAS chemicals that 3M continues to produce, as customers look for alternatives.

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3M pioneered the development of PFAS chemicals in the late 1940s, building on atomic research that used fluorine gas. By bonding fluorine to carbon, 3M found it could create durable compounds that could be adapted for use in consumer and industrial products.

The 3M plant where PFAS chemicals are produced has become increasingly focused on soil and water contamination. 3M has committed billions of dollars to cleaning up plant sites in recent years, including an $850 million settlement with the state of Minnesota related to a plant in Cottage Grove, Minn. The company also agreed earlier this year to pay about $600 million to remediate contamination. connected to a plant in Belgium where PFAS chemicals were produced.

3M also produces PFAS chemicals at plants in Alabama, Illinois and Germany.

In the early 2000s, 3M phased out production of two PFAS chemicals, known as PFOA and PFOS. These two forms of PFAS chemicals have been at the center of thousands of lawsuits targeting 3M and other manufacturers.

Write to Kris Maher at [email protected] and Bob Tita at [email protected]

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