“Multinational corporations have poisoned the planet forever with chemicals out of greed for profit.”


By Mick Le Moignan

Imagine if a giant, multinational corporation developed indestructible, cancer-causing chemicals and used them in so many products that they would be found in the blood of 98% of the world's population, as well as in every ocean, most land masses, rivers, animals and plants. How could the company ever compensate its victims or restore the environment?

Unfortunately, this is not some ridiculous, dystopian sci-fi fantasy, but the simple truth. PFOS and PFAS – per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – developed and produced by the US company 3M, have unique properties that allow them to withstand heat, water, oil and grease. They can be found in non-stick frying pans, waterproof and stain-resistant clothing, sofas and carpets in almost every home around the world. They are found in school uniforms, adhesives and food packaging. After being used in some fire-resistant foams, they flooded vast areas and flowed into the sea via streams and rivers.

The culmination of nearly a decade of detailed investigative research in the US and Australia by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Carrie Fellner, the powerful new 90-minute documentary How to Poison a Planet shows that PFAS are responsible for global poisoning Contamination, illness and death. 3M and the Australian Department of Defense are accused of willfully ignoring mounting evidence over several decades.

In March, 3M settled a class-action lawsuit “on the steps of the court,” paying $12.5 billion to avoid a five-week hearing that would have revealed the whole horrific story. This will be just the first of many claims resulting from the widespread harm caused by PFAS. Already banned in many countries, 3M will stop production next year, but 11 other U.S. companies will continue. The genie is out of the bottle. No one knows how to remove these indestructible agents of death and disease from the environment.

Comparisons with the plagues of tobacco or asbestos are inadequate because smokers had a choice and asbestos can be removed. Most of us have consumed about 30 times the “safe” limit of PFAS without knowing anything about it. They are called “perpetual chemicals” because they never break down: they remain in water and soil – as well as in our bodies and everyday objects – indefinitely.

They are found in coffee cups, dental floss, makeup, shaving cream, contact lenses, paint, tampons, toilet paper, canned tuna and eggs. They are in your bedding, your cars, curtains and your clothes. They help keep your smartphone screen free of fingerprints. You don't have to lick your fingers: they can be absorbed through the skin or through the air you breathe.

The first alarm was raised in 1999 by a West Virginia farmer who lost 190 cows to rare diseases. He lived next to a DuPont chemical plant that made Teflon using materials from 3M. Environmental lawyer Robert Bilott took over the case, which was settled out of court in 2001. The story is told in the film “Dark Waters” with Mark Ruffalo as Mr. Bilott.

It's rare for a journalist to have the freedom to work on a single topic for years. Sydney's flagship newspaper gave Ms Fellner the time she needed to thoroughly investigate this horrific story. At a premiere screening of How to Poison a Planet, Herald editor Bevan Shields said: “She embodies the best of the newspaper.”

In 2018, she reported 21 cases of childhood cancer at a Minnesota school next to 3M headquarters. The city's drinking water was heavily contaminated with high levels of chemicals. Six of the victims had brain tumors.

Back home in Australia, Ms Fellner investigated PFAS contamination caused by firefighting foam at Williamstown RAAF Air Base near Newcastle, New South Wales. Then documentary director Katrina McGowan invited her to investigate the plight of an Aboriginal community in Wreck Bay, near the Jervis Bay naval base in southern New South Wales.

Even after the devastating effects of 200 years of white settlement, the indigenous people here enjoyed an idyllic life on pristine beaches near a tourist paradise, fishing, eating local oysters and bathing in the streams that flowed through their land to the sea, where their children played .

To their dismay, soldiers at the Defense Ministry's higher base were practicing fighting bushfires with aerial foam. Firefighters were regularly drenched in foam, and when it drained away, children playing underneath were also affected.

PFAS worsen heart and lung disease, inhibit the immune system, increase cholesterol, and contribute to many other diseases including cancer. There were too many unexplained, early deaths in the community for it to have been coincidence or misfortune.

In the film, Ms. Fellner and Ms. McGowan tell of two sisters, Skye and Jade Sturgeon, who grew up playing in seemingly harmless foam floating in the stream. In her late teens, Skye was diagnosed with meningioma, a rare brain tumor, due to her persistent headaches and balance problems. This disease typically affects people between the ages of 40 and 70. The chances of Skye contracting the disease were estimated at 1.5 in a million.

At 18, she underwent successful brain surgery, but the “benign” tumor grew back in time to spoil her 21st birthday, and she had to undergo another operation and another strenuous recovery. Then her sister Jade was diagnosed with the same disease.

Ms. Fellner wrote: “Doctors have looked for a hereditary link that could explain the sisters’ misfortune, but genetic testing has so far yielded no results.”

The scariest aspect of the whole story is the evidence that both 3M and the Defense Department apparently knew about the problem for decades.

Back in 1979, 3M executives flew from Minnesota to California to interview world-leading scientists about the dangers of PFOA. The experts' alarming advice was omitted from the final report, but was later unearthed in an earlier draft through legal subpoenas.

Ms. Fellner found an equally damning letter in Australia showing concerned requests from the Defense Department to 3M dating back to 1985. No one warned the Wreck Bay community that their food and water would be contaminated for nearly another 40 years.

Human life won't last forever – but these once-profitable chemicals will.