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Chemical manufacturer 3M to pay billions to help clean toxic PFAS from water supplies

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The chemical manufacturing giant 3M will pay up to $10 billion to help cities and towns test for and clean up toxic so-called forever chemicals in public water supplies. These are the chemicals known as PFAS. Hundreds of claimants sued 3M for its role in contaminating drinking water with firefighting foam that contains these chemicals. WBUR environmental correspondent Barbara Moran joins us from Massachusetts. Hi there.

BARBARA MORAN, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: First of all, Barbara, what are PFAS, and how big of a deal are they?

MORAN: Yeah, so they're a really big deal, first of all. And they're this huge class of chemicals that were invented in the 1930s, and they had all these really amazing qualities. Like, they were really heatproof and water-resistant, so they're used in all of these products - right? - like, cookware, like Teflon and stain-proof clothing. And unfortunately, it turns out that they're really toxic, even in small amounts in drinking water. One person I've spoken to a lot about this is Wendy Heiger-Bernays, and she's a toxicologist at Boston University who studies PFAS in drinking water.

WENDY HEIGER-BERNAYS: It is really toxic. And there are certainly communities in Massachusetts - right? - who have been poisoned. You'll rarely hear me say that, but they have been.

MORAN: So Heiger-Bernays says that these chemicals have been linked to liver disease, cancer and a lot of other really serious health problems.

SUMMERS: OK. And how do these chemicals end up in drinking water?

MORAN: All kinds of ways, really. So if you have stain-proof clothing and you wash it in the washing machine, it can go out into the storm water. It can be in products in landfills and leech into the groundwater that way. But one of the biggest known contaminants is firefighting foam, which contains PFAS. And so you can imagine this being sprayed all over, you know, military bases and firefighting academies, and it gets into the groundwater and into the drinking water that way. And that's where we've been seeing the highest levels of contamination - by places like this.

SUMMERS: And if I'm understanding correctly, 3M was sued because they made this firefighting foam.

MORAN: That's right. They made it for decades. And this settlement is resolving about 500 cases that were pending - cities, towns, water districts. And they all said that 3M's firefighting foam contaminated their drinking water. Now, it's important to know that 3M hasn't admitted any liability in the settlement, but they've agreed to pay $10 billion for testing and cleanup of drinking water.

SUMMERS: I mean, $10 billion - that sounds like a lot of money. How are people reacting to this settlement?

MORAN: Yeah, it sure does sound like a lot of money. Well, people think it's good to see 3M paying up, but they also say it's nowhere near enough money to pay for all the cleanup. It's like, you know, a drop in the bucket, really. So - and that's because the cleanup is really expensive, so it can cost a small town, like, 20, $30 million to install filters to clean up their drinking water, plus, you know, ongoing maintenance for years and years. Jennifer Pederson is the executive director of the Massachusetts Water Works Association, and she sums this up pretty well.

JENNIFER PEDERSON: Looking at the scope of the problem across the nation, 10 billion isn't really going to be sufficient enough to cover what our public water systems are facing. I mean, I think we're looking at billions in Massachusetts alone.

MORAN: And Pederson says that despite this huge settlement, a lot of the cost is still going to fall on water customers.

SUMMERS: Barbara, thank you.

MORAN: Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: That's Barbara Moran with WBUR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Barbara Moran
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