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Use of dangerous chemicals in plastics expected to lead to wave of 'astronomical' lawsuits: 'The floodgates are opening'

"That's a formula for really significant liability."

"That's a formula for really significant liability."

Photo Credit: iStock

As more evidence emerges about the health and environmental impacts of PFAS, or forever chemicals, lawyers are warning plastic industry leaders they could soon face a "wave of lawsuits," according to the New York Times.

What's happening?

As the Times reported, defense lawyer Brian Gross spoke to executives of plastic companies at an industry conference earlier this year about the fact that coming lawsuits could have "astronomical" costs and could "dwarf anything related to asbestos." 

Lawsuits have already been filed against chemical giants DuPont and 3M, with the latter agreeing to pay up to $12.5 billion over 13 years to help water utilities pay for PFAS contamination cleanup costs. But lawyers say the legal battle is just getting started.

Thirty state attorneys general have filed lawsuits against PFAS manufacturers. A class-action suit has also been brought against Bic, as plaintiffs claimed the company failed to warn consumers that some of its razors contained forever chemicals, per the Times. 

The outlet explained that new PFAS regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency requiring companies and public water utilities to clean up the chemicals could trigger a fresh wave of lawsuits from city water systems and communities.

"To say that the floodgates are opening is an understatement," Emily M. Lamond, an environmental litigation attorney, told the Times. "Take tobacco, asbestos, MTBE, combine them, and I think we're still going to see more PFAS-related litigation."

Why are PFAS lawsuits important?

Holding companies accountable for the damage they've caused will send the message that the public will no longer tolerate greenwashing and that corporations must take responsibility to ensure a healthier future for all. 

While studies are ongoing about the health impacts of PFAS, they have so far been linked to decreased fertility, developmental delays in children, increased cancer risks and cholesterol levels, and hormone disruptions, per the EPA

According to the Times, one community in Belmont, Michigan, sued footwear company Wolverine Worldwide for disposing of tannery waste that contained PFAS in the town, contaminating water sources. 

Local resident Sandy Wynn-Stelt reached a settlement with Wolverine and 3M — which manufactured Scotchgard for the shoemaker's waterproof footwear — after she sued both companies following a thyroid cancer diagnosis and a blood test that revealed PFAS levels hundreds of times above average.

"We're being exposed without our knowledge or consent, often by industries that knew how dangerous the chemicals were, and failed to disclose that," Erik Olson, the Natural Resources Defense Council's environmental health senior strategic director, told the Times. "That's a formula for really significant liability."

In addition to contributing to health risks such as cancer, PFAS are also detrimental to the environment since they don't break down easily, harming wildlife and ecosystems long after they're produced. 

What's being done about PFAS?

While researchers say it's difficult to prove a correlation between health problems and PFAS in some cases, victories like Wynn-Stelt's show what's possible. Scientific research continues to evolve, which could make it easier to provide evidence in court.

PFAS are unfortunately widespread, but significant steps have been taken to clean up the harmful chemicals. 3M announced it would stop manufacturing PFAS by the end of 2025 and has invested in cutting-edge water filtration technology for processing chemicals. 

The Biden administration has also made major moves to regulate the toxic chemicals, reforming the Superfund law to require polluters to clean up contamination in communities. In addition, the EPA introduced a mandate for city water systems to remove six chemicals from water supplies, including PFAS. 

In our daily lives, we can minimize the risk these chemicals pose by avoiding plastic products as much as possible. Nonstick cookware, grease-resistant food wrappers, cleaning products, and water-resistant fabrics such as rain jackets are some of the worst offenders.

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