How 3M executives convinced a scientist the forever chemicals she found in human blood were safe

How 3M executives convinced a scientist the forever chemicals she found in human blood were safe

ProPublica reports:

Kris Hansen had worked as a chemist at the 3M Corporation for about a year when her boss, an affable senior scientist named Jim Johnson, gave her a strange assignment. 3M had invented Scotch Tape and Post-­it notes; it sold everything from sandpaper to kitchen sponges. But on this day, in 1997, Johnson wanted Hansen to test human blood for chemical contamination.

Several of 3M’s most successful products contained man-made compounds called fluorochemicals. In a spray called Scotchgard, fluorochemicals protected leather and fabric from stains. In a coating known as Scotchban, they prevented food packaging from getting soggy. In a soapy foam used by firefighters, they helped extinguish jet-fuel fires. Johnson explained to Hansen that one of the company’s fluorochemicals, PFOS — short for perfluorooctanesulfonic acid — often found its way into the bodies of 3M factory workers. Although he said that they were unharmed, he had recently hired an outside lab to measure the levels in their blood. The lab had just reported something odd, however. For the sake of comparison, it had tested blood samples from the American Red Cross, which came from the general population and should have been free of fluorochemicals. Instead, it kept finding a contaminant in the blood.

Johnson asked Hansen to figure out whether the lab had made a mistake. Detecting trace levels of chemicals was her specialty: She had recently written a doctoral dissertation about tiny particles in the atmosphere. Hansen’s team of lab technicians and junior scientists fetched a blood sample from a lab-­supply company and prepped it for analysis. Then Hansen switched on an oven-­size box known as a mass spectrometer, which weighs molecules so that scientists can identify them.

As the lab equipment hummed around her, Hansen loaded a sample into the machine. A graph appeared on the mass spectrometer’s display; it suggested that there was a compound in the blood that could be PFOS. That’s weird, Hansen thought. Why would a chemical produced by 3M show up in people who had never worked for the company?

Hansen didn’t want to share her results until she was certain that they were correct, so she and her team spent several weeks analyzing more blood, often in time-consuming overnight tests. All the samples appeared to be contaminated. When Hansen used a more precise method, liquid chromatography, the results left little doubt that the chemical in the Red Cross blood was PFOS. [Continue reading…]

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