EDITOR'S NOTE: This cover article from the May-June 2000 issue has been the most extensive to date in examining the environmental arguments behind 3M's sudden decision in May 2000 to abandon production of AFFF ATC.?
An explosion at a suburban petrochemical complex shatters the morning stillness. Residents nearby and those not so nearby, say all the way into the next county, witness an immense column of black smoke rising skyward. Authorities order the populace within one mile to shelter in place as protection against the airborne toxins.
With these facts in evidence, what should arriving fire chief Joe Doakes do to best protect the environment? A.) Put out the fire that is pumping tons of known poisons into the atmosphere. B.) Put out the fire without using a particular brand of fire foam that, although reliable, leaves microscopic traces of a compound that, in one study, may have caused deaths in baby lab rats. Otherwise, it has no track record of causing health problems in humans. C.) None of the above, which might well be the case if the extinguishing agent of choice is unavailable.
If the question above seems lunatic, prepare for a new scale of the unimaginable. Neither Saddam Hussein on a "Got Milk?" billboard nor Rush Limbaugh sealing his presidential endorsement of Al Gore with a kiss could have invoked one-tenth of the slack-jawed astonishment with which firefighters greeted the following announcement by Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co.
ST. PAUL, Minnesota--May 16-3M today announced it is phasing out of the perfluorooctanyl chemistry used to produce certain repellents and surfactant products. The affected product lines represent about two percent of 3M's nearly $16 billion in annual sales. These include Scotchgard products, such as soil, oil and water repellent products; coatings used for oil and grease resistance on paper packaging; fire-fighting foams; and specialty components of other products.
Period. Ka-boom. Short, sweet, and to the point. By the end of the year 3M expects to substantially phase out its entire line of Class B fire fighting foams, including ATC. No bankruptcy or hostile takeover bid. No court-imposed settlement. Surprisingly, no government action. This was a cold business decision made with concern that perfluorooctanyl chemistry might become an environmental flashpoint in the years ahead.
"Our decision anticipates increasing attention to the appropriate use and management of persistent materials," said Dr. Charles Reich, executive vice president, Specialty Chemicals Markets. "While the chemistry has been used effectively for more than 40 years and our products are safe, our decision to phase out production is based on our principals of responsible environmental management."
Specifically, the "persistent material" is perfluorooctanyl sulfonate (PFOS). It is a specific compound manufactured by 3M through a unique process known as electro-fluorination. In this form, PFOS is used in AFFF, Scotchgard, Scotchban and the other discontinued 3M products. PFOS also results from the degradation or "breakdown" of 3M products that share the same basic building block -- perfluorooctanesulfonyl fluoride (POSF).
Federal law requires that companies report results from any internal studies that cause concern for public health. Sealing the fate of all POSF and PFOS-related products were preliminary results from a multi-generation study of exposed rats. The study, conducted by 3M, was submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year. But even before EPA could fully access the data, management at 3M decided to pull the plug on its POSF/PFOS-related products, including AFFF.
PFOS already had two strikes against it. First, PFOS is persistent. Its traces remain long after the product has done its job. That it was being found in blood of 3M workers is old news. Further testing is now revealing PFOS in blood samples taken from the general public. The sources of exposure are many. Beside fire fighting foams, PFOS is used in such common products as aerosols and food contact goods made by 3M.
Two, with repeated exposure PFOS accumulates within organisms. This triggered concern when the 3M study showed that high doses of PFOS given to adult rats can be toxic to their offspring. Previous scientific evidence indicated that the compound should be inert. Like a rock sitting in a river, you would expect PFOS to be doing no harm. Also, this a particularly small rock. When found in the environment, PFOS is measured in the minuscule parts per billion range. Before recent advancements in test it could not be detected at all.
Adding toxicity to persistence and accumulation amounted to the fatal third strike for 3M's POSF/PFOS-related products.
News reports on the 3M action, mostly brief, fixated on the Scotchgard brand name. To most of the general public all it meant was finding another brand of spray-on fabric protection. Firefighters, however, feared consequences beyond stained upholstery. 3M AFFF revolutionized flammable liquid fire fighting. Now, after more than three decades of research and development, it would soon join Shell "No Pest" Stripes and Beeman's chewing gum on history's expired product shelf.
Fire chiefs get paid to worry about the worst-case scenario. The news about 3M sent many straight into worst-case mode. Tony Semenza, chief of emergency services at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, CA, said the 3M announcement became the hot topic at San Francisco-area mutual aid meetings.
"The minute the letter came out there were not only meetings at the mutual aid organization, but there were an awful lot of e-mail flying around the country and an awful lot of conference calls among fire chiefs trying to understand exactly what it meant," Semenza said. "The chiefs were trying to position themselves so they had enough concentrate to last until they could review the situation and determine long term what resources may be available to them."
Fred Walker, the Air Force's chief fire engineer, said rumors about the 3M decision swept through the National Fire Protection Association conference in Denver like -- forgive the cliche -- wildfire.
"At NFPA the only thing that anybody was talking about was that 3M was ceasing AFFF production," Walker said. "We were going 'Oh, no, have we got the brother of Halon going here.'"
Halon, a gas used in total flooding systems, is particularly effective in protecting electronic gear and aircraft in flight. Despite this, its production was banned during the 1990s under the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement on protecting the ozone layer.
Overseas, Richard Coates, group fire advisor for UK-based BP/Amoco, was as much caught off guard as the American chiefs.
"Because 3M is such a major player in the world, then it did cause concern for obvious reasons: 'Where am I going to get my foam?'" Coates said. "Yes, there are alternative suppliers, we know that, but 3M was perceived to be the top of the market for their product. That's a fair statement."
The wording of the 3M statement, particularly regarding the environment, also created concern, Coates said.
"It was very clear that for environmental reasons they were stopping the production of a chemical," Coates said. "Then, for ourselves as a company that is very, very environmentally sensitive and has made major statements on that, it gives use real cause to think through the foam policy."
At NFPA and throughout the fire service, firefighters turned to two places for immediate answers - 3M and Williams Fire & Hazard Control, a longtime 3M associate renown for record-setting extinguishment of large-volume flammable liquid fires. Would Williams Fire & Hazard Control throw in with one of the competing AFFF brands? Or would Williams go into the foam business themselves? Those questions are still outstanding.
Dwight Williams, owner of Williams Fire & Hazard Control, said he plans to make an announcement about his company's future role in the fire foam business soon. Beside actively negotiating with 3M to obtain rights to their fire foam formulations, Williams said other options are being explored as well.
"We have been contacted by every foam manufacturer out there," Williams told Industrial Fire World. "We will come up with a chemical that is at least as effective (as 3M's) and that is compatible."
As for those foam manufacturers who once labored in the shadow of 3M's 50 percent-plus market share, all are busy distancing themselves from the environmental problems that felled Goliath. The biggest names - National Foam, Ansul, Chemguard and Angus - are quick to point out that their products contain no PFOS and that electro-fluroination is unique to 3M.
"All other perfluorochemicals being marketed in the U.S. by Dupont, Clariant Corp., ELF Atochem, Ciba Specialty Chemicals and now Chemguard are manufactured using a telomerization process giving rise to fundamentally different-end products called telomers," states a Chemguard press release. "Chemguard manufactures its' fluorochemical products 100% derived from telomerization products."
None of Chemguard's products contain PFOS or any derivatives there of, the press release states. Likewise, a press release by Angus declares its independence of electro-fluorination and PFOS, almost in the same breath.
"The 3M electrolysis process produces branched fluorocarbons and it is the resultant perfluorooctanyl compounds that are being withdrawn by 3M," the Angus release states.
A press release issued by Kidde Fire Fighting, owners of National Foam and Angus, states that their suppliers provide surfactants "flourinated by a completely different process which produces linear chains and behave differently."
A 3M spokesman counters that such a wholesale comparison of electro-fluorination to telomerization is like "comparing apples to oranges." Only the POSF fluorochemical branch that support production of PFOS is being discontinued, not electro-fluorination, said Dr. John Heinze, a biochemist with a Washington, D.C., consulting firm retained by 3M.
"3M is not giving up electro-fluorination," said Heinze. "There are still products that 3M will be making using electro-fluorination. There is no flaw in the electro-fluorination process."
Still, with the attention drawn by 3M's departure, environmental questions may prove hard to shake for the fire foam business as a whole.
"It is certain that it is going to put the spotlight on other companies and therefore is not going to make it easy for them," said Dr. Kirkland Clark, director of chemical research and development for Chemguard. "Certainly, they are going to have to answer the necessary questions when they arise."
Environmental issues aside, one essential fact remains. With more than half of the established market suddenly up for grabs, somebody is going to make and sell the needed AFFF. Whether it will be a new names or one or more of the remaining industry leaders is the burning question.