Baltimore sued a slew of chemical companies Friday, accusing them of “knowingly” allowing hazardous PFAS chemicals to contaminate its waterways and water system. The city joins a recent wave of cities and governments around the country pursuing legal action over the decades-long proliferation of so-called “forever chemicals.”
The city’s lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Maryland, targets more than 20 different manufacturers of a fire suppressant foam containing PFAS. The 44-page complaint names chemical giants 3M, based in Minnesota, and DuPont, based in Delaware, among other companies.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have for decades been used widely in everything from fire extinguisher foam to food packaging to shampoos to nonstick cookware. Because of how slowly these chemicals break down — and due to their long-lasting contamination in soil and water — PFAS have become known as “forever chemicals.” They build up in animals and in humans, and exposure to some types of PFAS can lead to cancer, developmental problems and other health complications.
In the lawsuit, attorneys for the city of Baltimore argue that manufacturers of the fire suppressant concealed their knowledge of the hazards in their products “in order to prevent regulation and protect their profits,” allowing toxins to proliferate in the environment while city officials remained unaware of the danger.
“While Defendants reaped massive profits from the production and sale of PFAS-based AFFF [fire suppressant] products, they saddled Baltimore and its residents with the burden of cleaning up the mess the ordinary and intended use of those products inevitably caused,” the lawsuit said.
Fire extinguisher foam has been used widely around Baltimore, both in training exercises and in fighting actual fires, for decades, the complaint said.
In a statement, 3M spokesperson Sean Lynch said the company “acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS and will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship.” A spokesperson for DuPont said the company could not comment Friday afternoon because it had not yet been served the lawsuit.
PFAS have seen a surge of attention from government leaders and regulators in recent years, and Baltimore is among a growing list of governments that have looked to hold manufacturers accountable for the chemical pollution in court. President Joe Biden’s administration has looked to crack down on forever chemicals with tighter environmental regulations, while governments across the country — among them San Diego, Philadelphia and Prince George’s County, Maryland— have filed lawsuits against chemical companies for their contributions to PFAS accumulation.
Earlier this year, members of the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation banning the use of PFAS in firefighting foams, in addition to food packaging and carpets.
While the extent of PFAS contamination around Baltimore is not yet fully understood, the lawsuit states that contamination from fire suppressant foam currently afflicts the water supplies in city-managed drinking water reservoirs, the city’s wastewater system and surface waters like the Baltimore Harbor and Patapsco River.
Emily Scarr, state director for the environmental group Maryland PIRG, applauded Mayor Brandon Scott for pursuing the lawsuit and said the decades-long use of PFAS in fire extinguisher foam has put frontline workers at risk of cancer and polluting local waterways.
“Holding polluting industries accountable for any damage their product causes is a bedrock principle of fairness, accountability and restitution,” Scarr said in a statement.
The Maryland Department of the Environment began testing for PFAS levels in fish in 2020, and last year it issued its first fish consumption advisory related to the chemicals for three species in the Piscataway Creek in Prince George’s County.
Recent testing has found PFAS levels in Baltimore’s drinking water reservoirs — which supplies 1.8 million homes and businesses in the city and surrounding counties — to be low, falling well below a previous federal advisory level. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued stricter guidance earlier this year suggesting that a safe level of PFAS in drinking water is near zero.
In a statement announcing the lawsuit, the mayor’s office said that while Baltimore’s drinking water has measured only trace amounts of PFAS in line with regulatory requirements, “the fact that they are present is reason enough to proactively prepare for future protections.”