The substances — known collectively as PFAS — have been used in coatings meant to protect consumer goods and are commonplace in households across the United States. Studies have found potential links between high levels of PFOA in the body and a range of illnesses including kidney cancer, increased cholesterol levels and problems in pregnancies. And because they persist for so long in the environment, PFAS has been dubbed a forever chemical.
With the lawsuits filed Wednesday, New Hampshire joins a growing number of states going after the makers and distributors of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances and the first to target statewide contamination.
"The actions we are taking today is intended to ensure that those responsible for PFAS contamination to our state's drinking water supplies and other natural resources are held accountable," New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said. "As alleged in the lawsuits, the defendants possessed unique knowledge of the dangers of PFAS chemicals but continued to make or sell them without warning the public of their health risks."
New York state has sued six companies that made firefighting foam containing PFOS and/or PFOA chemicals that it says have contaminated drinking water in two communities and groundwater in another. Last year, Minnesota reached an $850 million settlement with 3M to resolve a lawsuit in which the state alleged some of the company's chemicals damaged natural resources and groundwater in the Twin Cities' eastern metropolitan area.
In an email regarding the latest lawsuits, 3M said it "acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS" and would "vigorously defend its environmental stewardship." DuPont said it doesn't comment on pending litigation but would also defend its record of health, safety and environmental stewardship. A spokesman for Kidde-Fenwal Inc., said the company wouldn't comment on the lawsuits.
A spokesman for Johnson Controls whose brands include Tyco and Chemguard, defended its use of firefighting foams. "Tyco and Chemguard acted appropriately and responsibly at all times in producing our firefighting foams," Fraser Engerman, director of global media relations for Johnson Controls, said in a statement.
"We make our foams to exacting military standards, and the U.S. military and civilian firefighters have depended for decades on these foams to extinguish life-threatening fires," he continued. Chemours said in a statement that it had not reviewed the lawsuit but "does not have manufacturing facilities in New Hampshire and does not manufacture, formulate or sell firefighting foam."
It added that no Chemours site globally has ever used PFOS in its manufacturing processes, one of a group of PFAS chemicals. The lawsuit also names Buckeye Fire Equipment and National Fire Foam Inc. They had yet to respond to requests for comment.
Health concerns about the ubiquitous compounds have prompted states to take legislative and regulatory action, including setting drinking water standards, conducting widespread testing and proposing bans on some PFAS packaging and even dental floss containing the chemical.
Last month, Vermont announced a settlement with a plastics company that would help hundreds of people in the Bennington area whose drinking water wells had been contaminated. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics agreed to extend municipal water lines to more homes.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which has established a nonbinding health advisory threshold of 70 parts per trillion, earlier this year announced plans to consider limits on the toxic chemicals. That upset environmentalists who want action now.
The challenge for regulators is tracking down and treating a chemical that seems to be everywhere, from materials in landfills to the drinking water of homeowners, to the rivers where people fish. EPA-mandated testing of about 5,000 of the roughly 150,000 public water systems in the U.S. completed in 2016 found dangerous levels of the same two PFAS compounds in 66 systems. Local and state testing has identified high levels in additional systems.
New Hampshire has been forced to connect more than 700 homes to new water systems in four communities due to PFAS contamination. It estimates that the contamination could end up impacting 100,000 people, with damages reaching several hundred million dollars.
New Hampshire does not seek a specific dollar amount in the lawsuits. The state wants the companies to pay the cost of investigating, cleaning up and remediating the contamination. It accused DuPont and 3M of knowing the dangers of PFAS going back as far as the 1950s but not making it public while continuing to market the compounds.
"It is my hope that those responsible for the manufacturer and distribution of PFAS will recognize the severity of the issues they have caused and will become part of the solution," MacDonald said. The state hopes others follow its lead — as several did after it sued Exxon Mobil in 2003 over MTBE, a petroleum-based gasoline additive used to reduce smog-causing emissions. The state won a $236 million judgment.
"We are taking a big first step on behalf of the country," Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said of the lawsuits.
This story has been corrected to show that New Hampshire is not the second state to target the chemical companies and to identify one of the companies as DuPont, not Dupont. It also edits the story to correct the spelling of Attorney General Gordon MacDonald.