Toxic scandals can be costly affairs
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Toxic scandals can be costly affairs

There have been several scandals involving large companies’ use of hazardous substances in their products. And these are always very costly affairs. Especially in terms of environmental damage, but also in terms of economy and brand reputation.

The latest in the row comes from New York, where the state has sued 3M and five other companies for causing “extensive contamination” to the nearby environment.
The lawsuit is the first of its kind and aims to recover the costs incurred in cleaning up the contamination, which have amounted to almost $40 million.

“This is a good example of the ‘polluter pays’ principle. In far too many cases society has to pay for damages that have been caused by companies’ use of hazardous chemicals. Examples where the companies actually have to pay for the clean-up are still few, but hopefully this lawsuit opens the door to similar cases”, comments Dr. Anna Lennquist at ChemSec.

Surfactants contaminating the water

The six companies that are being sued manufacture firefighting foam that is used at military and civilian airports in the state of New York. These foams contain the toxic chemicals PFOS and PFOA, which in addition to firefighting foams are also used in frying pans and food contact materials, and for waterproofing textiles. Their use has been widespread in society for decades due to their unique surface properties.

But they are, however, associated with cancer, liver damage, immune system effects and other severe harm to people who are exposed to them. They are also very mobile and persistent in the environment, causing them to accumulate in fish and other wildlife – including humans.

New York state claims that the use of the companies’ products resulted in the release of PFOS and PFOA into the surrounding environment and communities, contaminating drinking water, surface water, soil and fish.

A sample from the nearby Lake Washington, the primary drinking water supply for the City of Newburgh, found concentrations as high as 282 parts per trillion (ppt), when the public health advisory recommends that concentrations do not exceed 70 ppt.

“The conduct of these manufacturers caused widespread contamination of our drinking water and our environment – and jeopardized the health of tens of thousands of New Yorkers, said the Attorney General Barbara Underwood in a press release following the announcement of the ground-breaking lawsuit.

3M began developing firefighting foams containing PFOS and PFOA in the early 1960s, and the lawsuit alleges that the companies already knew about the hazards by the 1970s.

In fact, in April 2006, 3M agreed to pay a penalty of more than $1.5 million for its failure to disclose studies dating back decades that confirmed the potential hazards of these chemicals to public health and the environment.

Not the first scandal

This is certainly not the first time that large companies have suffered major blows due to their use of hazardous substances in products. In 2001, Dutch officials seized more than 1.3 million Sony Playstations due to the high amounts of cadmium found in the console’s cables.

This caused Sony to temporarily halt shipments to Europe while fixing the problem in their products. According to a press release from the company, the estimated impact was approximately €110 million on sales and €52 million on the rework.

Another example is Mattel, a worldwide leader in toys and family products. In 2007, they had to recall approximately 1.8 million toys due to lead detected in the paint on the toys. This caused their stock price to plummet and Mattel’s stock to seriously underperform for an entire year. In the end, the company had to invest heavily to rebuild trust among consumers after the scandal.

“We have seen a growing number of companies become targets of litigation and suffer damage to their brand reputation due to their use of hazardous substances. Fortunately, more and more companies now understand the importance of avoiding scandals like this, and are working to monitor and phase out these toxic chemicals”, concludes Dr. Anna Lennquist at ChemSec.