British Columbia has become the first Canadian province to sue chemical companies over toxic "forever chemicals" and the effect they have on the environment and human health.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of thousands of chemically similar water- and grease-resistant chemicals used in everything from firefighting foam to outdoor clothing and food wrappers. They do not break down in nature, can bioaccumulate in animals and humans, and can cause cancer, endocrine disorders, thyroid disease and other problems.

On Friday, the province's attorney-general, Niki Sharma, announced the government has filed a civil suit against five major PFAS producers, including chemical giants 3M and DuPont de Nemours.

The province wants the companies to cover the cost of cleaning PFAS-contaminated drinking water and a public acknowledgement the companies mislead consumers about the risks their products pose.

"This class action seeks compensation for the cost of issues caused by ‘forever chemicals’ being present in our drinking-water systems," Sharma said in a statement. "This case will ensure that companies that created the problem, and profited from these chemicals, pay their fair share."

PFAS were first created in the 1940s by American chemical company 3M; by the 1950s, they had started being used in a variety of materials like plastics and firefighting foams. However, internal company studies conducted in the decades since PFAS were created found they were more dangerous to health and the environment than advertised – findings the companies hid from the public and government regulators, the court filings note. In May, a story in ProPublica revealed the lengths to which 3M had gone to undermine efforts to understand the effects of the chemicals.

The suit alleges that information should have been made public, and pushed the companies to recall and stop producing products containing PFAS. Moreover, it alleges the companies' marketing for the chemicals breached Canada's competition laws, and that they conspired to hide the harmful impacts of PFAS to "maximize profits from the sale of PFAS-containing products.''

While the B.C. lawsuit is the first time a Canadian government has sued PFAS manufacturers for the damage their products have caused, it comes amidst growing efforts to ban the chemicals. Earlier this year, the U.S. implemented strict new drinking water guidelines targeted at PFAS; several American states and the European Union have also implemented bans or strict rules around the chemicals. For instance, Maine has banned PFAS in cookware, textiles and other products.

They have also triggered hundreds of lawsuits in the U.S., which have so far resulted in several major settlements worth over $15 billion, including payments to water utilities for costs associated with removing the chemicals.

The province wants the companies to cover costs of cleaning PFAS-contaminated drinking water and a public acknowledgement the companies mislead consumers about the risks their products pose. 

Last May, Environment and Climate Change Canada published an assessment of the health and environmental impacts of PFAS that assessed the chemicals as a class, instead of individually. Environmental groups hope the approach signals the government is likewise considering listing the entire class of chemicals as toxic, enabling them to enact more effective restrictions on PFAS. Canada's chemical industry staunchly opposes that approach and has been lobbying against it for months.

In March, B.C. Green MLA Adam Olsen tabled a bill to ban PFAS in the province. In a statement at the time, a spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General said the government is “reviewing the legislation."

B.C.'s lawsuit "is an important step in stopping the PFAS toxic legacy from growing, and we thank the BC government for stepping up on holding these PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ manufacturers responsible," said Cassie Barker, toxics program manager at Environmental Defense in a statement. "Now we need the federal government to use its regulatory tools to stop PFAS from entering the Canadian marketplace, our environment and our bodies."

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
June 24, 2024, 02:00 pm

Editor's note: This story was corrected on June 24, 2024 to clarify that Adam Olsen in a B.C. MLA, not an MP.

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Good news. These harmful chemicals should not be allowed in any product.

Excellent article and I'd suggest people read the link to ProPublica on the telling history of these chemicals and the strong parallels to big oil and big tobacco.
The conclusion reached by the woman who wrote it is how some dangerous truths of public harm have been revealed in movies like Silkwood, Spotlight and Dark Waters accompanied by real consequences but how the reality is very much otherwise.

And don't forget the National Observer's podcast "The Poison Detectives"! Sandra Bartlett did an excellent job of reporting the industry cover up of the harms (especially to firefighters) done by these chemicals.

I second the plug for The Poison Detectives.

And I watched a few days ago a 2019 movie, Dark Waters (Netflix), which is a story of a lawyer who takes on DuPont over another sort of forever chemical. Not quite as good as, say, Erin Brockovich, but still decent and informative, with a terrific cast.

That we have never implemented a precautionary approach to chemical design and manufacture continues to boggle me.