3M to phase out persistent fluorine chemical

Move set to launch global pressure for restrictions on perfluorooctanyl water repellents

US-based global manufacturer 3M is to phase out the use of an oil and water repellent chemical that has been found at low levels in humans and animals world-wide. The announcement marks a rare precautionary initiative to stop using a substance that is persistent and bioaccumulative but which has not been shown to have caused any harm. It is set to spark pressure for a broader international phase-out of similar chemicals.

The chemical concerned - perfluorooctanyl sulphonate (PFOS) - was developed by 3M in the 1950s and has been used by the firm world-wide in Scotchgard branded products including specialist fire-fighting foams and oil and grease resistant coatings for paper packaging and textiles. Analytical techniques developed in the last two years have led to discovery of the chemical at very low (parts per billion) levels in human and animal tissues around the world.

Though PFOS is unique to 3M, similar chemicals are marketed by other international chemical firms and are likely to swiftly come under pressure. Welcoming 3M's decision to phase out PFOS, the US Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday that it would "seek international support for a voluntary phase-out of PFOS and related chemicals".

For 3M, the phase-out will mean short-term costs of US$200m (euros 220m) as it writes down assets, but the firm says the move makes longer-term environmental and commercial sense. "We are in growth mode and we see great prospects in other markets," a spokesperson told ENDS Daily today. "While there is no evidence of risk to health or the environment, we believe the prudent thing to do is to begin an orderly phase-out," he continued.

Production of PFOS at the firm's main plants in Alabama and Antwerp, Belgium, as well as in Australia and Japan, will end this year. "A majority" of Scotchgard products will be phased out as a result.

Follow Up:
3M, tel: (3M Europe) +32 2 722 4500, and see press release and list of affected products, plus US EPA press release.

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