Phase-out of POP-like chemical turns spotlight on fluorocarbons

Multinational 3M has taken both the chemical industry and environmentalists by surprise with its announcement that it is phasing out some fluorocarbons used in a range of products, including the Scotchguard brand.

3M’s production of perfluorooctanyl sulphonate and perfluorooctanoic acid will end this year. Product lines affected by the phase-out account for about two percent of the company’s annual sales, which are almost $16 billion. 3M believes that the phase-out will cost the company $200 million.

Stock market reaction to the announcement was positive, with 3M shares rising on the day of the news by $4.125 and closing at $90.06.

Praise has also come from environmental groups, including Greenpeace. “Many companies, and the chemical industry as a whole, would do well to look at 3M’s approach,” Dr Paul Johnston, principal scientist at Greenpeace’s research laboratory at Exeter University, told edie.

But Johnston would like to know exactly why 3M took its decision. “They’ve gone part of the way and what they need to do now is to become completely transparent and make their information available to the wider scientific community,” he says.

The phase-out is the result of 3M’s own tests, which have allegedly shown higher fatalities in rats than were expected as well as higher levels of the perfluorocarbons in the blood of 3M workers. The chemicals have similar properties to persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in that they are persistent and bioaccumulative, but Johnston points out that they are not among the 12 POPs which the United Nations Environmental Programme is seeking to phase out through an international agreement (see related story).

“They’ve been assumed, thus far, to be relatively inert and relatively non-toxic,” says Johnston, who remembers a photograph circulated by the fluorocarbon industry designed to highlight the safety of the chemicals – it showed a mouse swimming in perfluorocarbon.

Johnston hopes that 3M will back-up its ban with disclosure of test results and policies to deal with products already in circulation. He gives Monsanto’s 1977 decision to end production of PCBs as both a precedent to

3M’s recent move and an example of what to avoid. Johnston believes that Monsanto failed to act in good faith when it ended PCB production without seeking to reduce workers’ and consumers’ continuing PCB exposure from products already in the market.

With fluorocarbons maintaining a relatively spotless reputation until now, there are questions about whether pressure will mount on other companies using the same chemicals. Johnston also wonders whether the fluorocarbon industry as a whole will have a rocky road in future. “Remember how the problems with the chlorine sector began to emerge,” he says. “I wonder if what we’re seeing is the beginning of a similar process – discovering the downside to fluorocarbons.”

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