State unaware of 3M warning to Wolverine in 1999, opening review

An image of the letter 3M sent to Wolverine Worldwide, warning about PFOS.


PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — A Target 8 investigation that found Wolverine Worldwide was warned nearly 20 years ago about the potential dangers of a chemical in 3M’s Scotchgard is leading to a state investigation.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said it was unaware until Friday’s Target 8 report of a letter from 3M to Wolverine in 1999 warning of the potential hazards of PFOS in Scotchgard.

“The DEQ takes the issue of full transparency of historical information very seriously as this is very important information in our site investigations,” state Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Melanie Brown wrote in response to Target 8’s report. “The department is reviewing the newly obtained 3M correspondence and is looking forward to discussing with WWW how this new information correlates to the background information they previously have provided to us.”

3M, the Minnesota-based company that made the Scotchgard chemical that has contaminated wells and raised fears of cancer near Rockford, told Target 8 on Friday that it warned Wolverine Worldwide about the chemical nearly 20 years ago. It also provided Target 8 with a letter it had written to Wolverine in 1999.

Wolverine Worldwide previously said it learned only recently that the likely carcinogen PFOS was in the Scotchgard the company used to treat its shoes at its Rockford tannery.

“We are surprised to see that Wolverine claims it was unaware of the fact that PFOS was used at its former tannery and, apparently, that it was unaware of 3M’s voluntary decision to phase out of the chemistries in question. The record reflects otherwise,” wrote 3M attorney William A. Brewer III.

“Beyond the fact that 3M’s phaseout decision and leadership on this issue made national headlines, 3M personally met with Wolverine long before and during the time of the phaseout announcement in May 2000. These meetings were to discuss PFOS, share information about the compound, and advise of 3M’s voluntary efforts to phase out of the chemistries,” Brewer added.

“3M bears no responsibility for the environmental practices of Wolverine,” he said.

Target 8 obtained a Jan. 15, 1999 letter from 3M’s business director to Wolverine Worldwide’s then-vice president, Rick DeBlasio. The message was a follow-up to a meeting between the companies five days earlier.

>>PDF: 3M letter to Wolverine Worldwide

“There is a growing interest in understanding the effects of chemicals on human health and the environment,” 3M wrote.

The letter stated that 3M started making PFOS in 1948 and that it had recently discovered PFOS in the blood of exposed people.

“(The chemical) has the potential to accumulate in the body with repeated exposures,” the company wrote.

“The information was reported to your company previously in an updated Material Safety Data Sheet as recently as late 1998,” the letter states.

3M said its studies at the time showed no adverse health effects on its employees who were exposed to PFOS. But the company said it was looking for ways to change its formula.

“Our efforts are being guided by the concept that reducing unnecessary human and environmental exposure to a persistent chemical is the prudent and responsible
thing to do, even in the absence of known human health effects,” 3M wrote to Wolverine Worldwide.

The letter concluded: “We trust that you appreciate the delicate nature of this information and its potential for misuse. We ask that you treat it accordingly.”

By 2002, 3M had phased out of PFOS, changing the formula for the Scotchgard that Wolverine Worldwide used to treat its shoes at the Rockford tannery.

>>Inside woodtv.com: Complete coverage of the toxic tap water investigation

Three years later, a draft report by the Environmental Protection Agency suggested there was evidence that PFOS could cause cancer in humans. However, 3M continues to insist there is no evidence to show PFOS is a health hazard.

“We believe that PFOS and PFOA do not present health risks at levels they are typically found in the environment or in human blood,” said Dr. Carol A. Ley, who works for 3M’s medical department. “This view is informed by testing our production workers who were exposed to these chemicals at levels significantly higher than those in the general population – often over an extended period of time. Those workers show no adverse health effects from PFC exposure.”

Wolverine Worldwide has said it didn’t know until recently that PFOA and PFOS had been in Scotchgard.

In a statement it released shortly after testing started on area wells, Wolverine wrote:

“Immediately after Wolverine first learned that PFOS may have been present in the 3M Scotchgard applied to leather at its former tannery site in Rockford, the Company (sic) developed and submitted to the Department of Environmental Quality a proposed plan to voluntarily sample this site for not only PFOS, but also for PFOA and other PFAS compounds.”

On its website, Wolverine Worldwide wrote: “We now know that Scotchgard contained PFOA/PFOS until 3M changed the formula around 2002.”

However in a statement released Friday to Target 8, Wolverine Worldwide now says it was aware of PFOS before.

“Wolverine has known and it was widely publicized that 3M’s Scotchgard contained PFAS and we relied on 3M’s representations to us, the EPA, and the public that it had no adverse effects on the environment or human health. We’ve never intended to infer anything to the contrary.”

Wolverine dumped sludge from its tannery at the Belmont area dump site on House Street NE until 1970.

This year, tests started showing high levels of PFOS in neighboring wells. It has spread more than a mile. Now, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is investigating 57 potential dump sites.

>>App users: Interactive map of toxic tap water

In a recent interview with Target 8, a Wolverine Worldwide executive refused to respond to questions about what it knew and when.

“This is a new and emerging topic,” said Christopher Hufnagel, senior vice president of strategy for Wolverine Worldwide. “We are focused right now on understanding what’s happening in the House Street area and any place else and looking to find a resolution.”

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality released the following statement Saturday in response to Target 8’s investigation:

“The DEQ takes the issue of full transparency of historical information very seriously as this is very important information in our site investigations. The department is reviewing the newly obtained 3M correspondence and is looking forward to discussing with WWW how this new information correlates to the background information they previously have provided to us.”

RESOURCES FOR BELMONT RESIDENTS:

If you are eligible for a whole-house water filtration system from Wolverine Worldwide, you can call 616.866.5627 or email HouseStreet@wwwinc.com.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Environmental Assistance Center can be reached at 1.800.662.9278.

Websites with additional information on the contamination: