News that the Environmental Protection Agency pressured the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to suppress a study showing PFAS chemicals to be even more dangerous than previously thought drew outrage this spring. The EPA pressure delayed the study’s publication for several months, and a similar dynamic seems to have been in play this July in Michigan, where Robert Delaney, a state scientist who tried to raise alarms about the chemicals six years ago, was largely ignored. Delaney, who delivered a report to his superiors about high levels of the chemicals in fish and the dangers they presented to people, has been heralded as prophetic. And both delays are being lamented as missed opportunities for getting critical information to the public.

But the dangers presented by these industrial chemicals have been known for decades, not just a few months or years. A lawsuit filed by Minnesota against 3M, the company that first developed and sold PFOS and PFOA, the two best-known PFAS compounds, has revealed that the company knew that these chemicals were accumulating in people’s blood for more than 40 years. 3M researchers documented the chemicals in fish, just as the Michigan scientist did, but they did so back in the 1970s. That same decade, 3M scientists realized that the compounds they produced were toxic. The company even had evidence back then of the compounds’ effects on the immune system, studies of which are just now driving the lower levels put forward by the ATSDR, as well as several states and the European Union.

The suit, which the Minnesota attorney general filed in 2010, charges that 3M polluted groundwater with PFAS compounds and ‘knew or should have known’ that these chemicals harm human health and the environment, and ‘result in injury, destruction, and loss of natural resources of the State.’ The complaint argues that 3M ‘acted with a deliberate disregard for the high risk of injury to the citizens and wildlife of Minnesota.’ 3M settled the suit for $850 million in February, and the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office released a large set of documents — including internal studies, memos, emails, and research reports — detailing what 3M knew about the chemicals’ harms.

Some of the documents had been under seal since 2005 as a result of a separate lawsuit over PFAS contamination in Minnesota. And the documents had been in the EPA’s possession for at least 18 years: In 2000, 3M gave the EPA hundreds of documents it had withheld from the agency, resulting in more than $1.5 million in penalties in 2006 for 244 violations of the Toxic Substances Control Act. Even so, for years the EPA did nothing. Even as a few government officials and company scientists understood the vast dangers they posed, PFAS were allowed to spread into groundwater and then drinking water, into people and their children, into animals, plants and the food system where they remain today…

As a staff epidemiologist at 3M, Geary Olsen has had a wealth of data at his fingertips. The company he’s worked for since at least 1998 makes more than 55,000 products and has more than 90,000 employees. Olsen had access to internal information about both and has been able to combine them to pursue the kinds of scientific questions most researchers can only dream of being able to ask and answer.

In one study, for instance, Olsen looked at blood tests of 3M employees at the company’s plants in Antwerp, Belgium, and Decatur, Alabama, both of which made PFOA and PFOS, among other products. By the late 1990s when Olsen was embarking on this research, these chemicals were known within the company to accumulate in humans and alter cholesterol levels in lab animals. Because the workers had undergone three separate rounds of blood tests, Olsen was able to trace the levels of the chemicals in workers’ blood over time. And by combining his results with various clinical measures the company had been tracking in its workers, he was able to see whether there was a relationship between the chemical and these health outcomes.

Olsen’s findings, written up in an draft report in October 2001, were clear. There was a positive association between the amount of PFOA in workers’ blood and their levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, states the report, on which Olsen is listed as the principal investigator. The report devoted more than 20 tables to triglycerides and cholesterol, detailing a relationship that later studies would confirm: PFOA increased people’s levels of triglycerides, which are a type of fat, and cholesterol, both of which can increase the chance of heart disease. The results were in keeping with rat evidence, as the report noted.

Yet less than two years later, when Olsen and the three co-authors on the report — all 3M employees — published an article based on the same research, it downplayed this key finding. Indeed, according to the study, which ran in the March 2003 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, ‘There were no substantial changes in hematological, lipid, hepatic, thyroid, or urinary parameters consistent with the known toxicological effects of PFOS or PFOA’ — a statement that appears to contradict the authors’ earlier finding.

In the 19th paragraph of the 2003 article, the authors note that PFOA was ‘positively associated with cholesterol and triglycerides’ and that ‘serum PFOS was positively associated with the natural log of serum cholesterol … and triglycerides,’ but dismiss these effects as ‘minimal.’ The article omits most of the information that was contained in the draft’s tables and clearly laid out the increase in cholesterol and triglycerides in exposed workers.

The minimizing of this bad news is just one of several instances in which 3M seems to have downplayed, spun, and tailored its own research to make these two PFAS chemicals and others it produced appear safer than they were, according to the documents made public by Minnesota’s attorney general…

In an email, a 3M spokesperson strenuously denied that the company tailored its research around PFAS, writing that ‘neither 3M nor Dr. Olsen has distorted or suppressed the scientific evidence regarding PFAS in any way.’ The email also pointed out that the company eventually gave the EPA Olsen’s 2001 report, which at this point has ‘been publicly available for well over a decade.’ While acknowledging that Olsen found an association between cholesterol levels and PFOA, the 3M spokesperson noted that the effect of PFOA he documented in some workers — increasing cholesterol levels — was inconsistent with those observed in rats, whose levels decreased after exposure to the chemical, and that ‘the science is complex and neither the study nor the larger body of scientific evidence on this issue establishes causation’…

Yet the documents released by the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office demonstrate that 3M’s communications strategy altered the scientific record on PFAS by prettifying the scientific picture of PFOA and PFOS over the more than four decades it produced them.

While 3M readily paid its fines, there was no undoing the delay in regulatory action that resulted from the previous decades of keeping its damning information secret. While the studies sat in 3M’s private files, PFAS chemicals from the company’s facilities were entering the water in Minnesota, Alabama, and elsewhere, and PFOS and PFOA were accumulating in the environment and in people, the vast majority of whom now have the chemicals in their blood.

The lag in getting scientific information to regulators in turn resulted in prolonged public exposure to the chemicals, as Philippe Grandjean argues in an editorial in the journal Environmental Health. A physician and environmental health scholar who has studied the immune effects of PFAS and provided expert testimony for Minnesota in the 3M case, Grandjean argues that regulators should learn from this massive misstep, and that substitutes for PFOS and PFOA ‘should be subjected to prior scrutiny before widespread usage.’ ”

Read the full article by Sharon Lerner