Companies That Would Rather Switch Than Fight : 3M's Retreat from Scotchgard

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Last week one of the most successful and innovative American corporations was pressured to take a safe and useful product off the market by a federal regulatory bureaucracy that demands precautionary action even in the absence of evidence that a health or environmental hazard exists.

The 3M Company moved to phase out its popular Scotchgard line after 40 years even though there was no reason to believe that these products, which protect clothing, fabrics, upholstery and carpets from stains and other damage, were harmful to human or animal health or the environment. Predictably there was a chemical villain de jour, in this case perfluorooctanyl sulfonate (PFOS) which had been determined to be persistent in the environment and had been detected at trace levels in human blood.

But what exactly is the significance of these findings for both human and environmental health?

None as far as we know. All living organisms are continually exposed to foreign chemicals. These include substances that are natural (e.g. toxins produced by molds, plants, animals) and man-made ( e.g. drugs, industrial chemicals, pesticides and pollutants). As a result of these exposures, human tissues and body fluids contain trace levels of any and all of these. Virtually all substances to which a person is exposed are absorbed into the blood. Improvements in analytical methods now make it possible to detect increasingly smaller levels but again, there is no evidence that the mere presence of these trace concentrations in the body present a risk. As to environmental persistence naturally occurring elements like iron are just as pervasive and persistent, also without untoward effects.

Environmental activists are characterizing the 3M's decision as a great victory for the precautionary principle. Gina Solomon, a physician and senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council praised 3M for "removing the product before there is absolute scientific proof of harm."

In fact, however, 3M's argues that its retreat reflected a business reality: the oppressive regulatory environment in Washington (as well as internationally) made it no longer cost effective for them to defend their products. Dr. Larry Zobel, 3M's medical director noted, "we did not want to be part of the debate about persistent chemicals," adding that the time and effort required to fend off regulatory moves worldwide could not be justified given the financial return on the product. Simply put, 3M decided to switch rather than fight.

The fact that a major corporation would decide that the costs of defending their products against baseless, unscientific charges would be higher than the profits to be made should send chills through every corporate and consumer spine in America. What useful products will American consumers be denied next? Given that we can now detect just about anything in blood samples, will companies be pressured to withdraw sunscreens, shampoos, foods, cleaning solvents and everything else in our pantries and utilities closets? Will DuPont be pressured to withdraw Teflon which has chemical constituents similar to PFOS even though Teflon is one of the most valuable and versatile technologies ever invented, contributing to significant advancements in areas such as aerospace, communications, electronics, industrial processes and architecture?

By abandoning Scotchgard, 3m is joining the likes of Frito-lay, which has all but rejected the spectacular promise of bioengineered foods, and baxter labs, which similarly caved when its plastic medical devices came under unscientific attack. By bowing to uninformed public sentiments and regulatory threats, these companies are making short term decisions that will later come back to haunt them in marketing other safe chemical products, since they are setting health and environmental standards which are not only unnecessary, but unattainable.

The 3M spokesman, confirming EPA's concern about persistent chemicals in the environment, said that the company does not "want things around that last for a long time." Unfortunately, that apparently also applies to useful and safe products.