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3M and the Withdrawal of PFOS: TSCA, Product Liability, and the Precautionary Principle

January 2003

Citation: 33 ELR 10062

Issue: 1

Author: Chris Higgins

On May 16, 2000, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) Company announced its intention to voluntarily phase out its perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)-based line of products from the global chemical market.1 This announcement surprised many in the industry, as 3M had manufactured PFOS-based products such as Scotchgard TM for nearly 40 years.2 In its press release, 3M executives indicated their decision was based on their pursuit of responsible environmental management.3 However, while the scientific information available at the time of 3M's decision certainly indicated the potential for adverse long-term environmental effects due to these chemicals, the evidence was much less damaging than one might expect for it to lead to a decision affecting $ 320 million (roughly 2%) of the company's annual sales.4

This Article explores the potential factors that may have contributed to 3M's decision to withdraw PFOS from the global market. Such factors may have included regulatory pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), concerns over long-term liability, and the company's desire to maintain a positive public environmental image through its adoption of the precautionary principle. This analysis will demonstrate that 3M's apparent commitment to responsible environmental management was the major factor leading to its decision, though potential liability issues may have played a minor role. While it may ultimately be impossible to determine the exact relative importance of these various factors, an investigation into these factors is warranted if one desires to encourage such behavior by other chemical manufacturers in the future.

Chris Higgins is a Ph.D. student in Stanford University's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He is currently examining the environmental transformation and fate of emerging chemical contaminants such as perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). Mr Higgins received his bachelor's degree in chemistry from Harvard College and worked as an analyst for The Cadmus Group, Inc., an environmental and energy policy consulting firm in Watertown, Massachusetts. This Article was prepared as part of Prof. Armin Rosencranz's course on Environmental Policy and Law, and financial support was provided through a Dean's Graduate Fellowship from Stanford University's School of Engineering.

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