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What you need to know about the 3M vs. State of Minnesota trial worth $5 billion

The Maplewood company is accused of knowingly contaminating water supplies.
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What's happening?

Jury selection will take place on Tuesday in a trial between the State of Minnesota and one of its biggest companies, Fortune 500-firm 3M.

The trial is expected to take 4-6 weeks, with 3M on the hook for $5 billion.

What's it about?

A lawsuit against 3M was brought by Minnesota's Attorney General Lori Swanson, who says that the company's development and disposal of petro-fluorochemicals (PFCs) since the '50s has seeped into water supplies in the East Twin Cities Metro and adversely impacted health.

According to the AG's office, 3M purchased the patent for PFCs and started manufacturing them after World War II, using it for products including Teflon-branded nonstick cookware and Scotchguard stain repellants.

However, Swanson argues that the chemicals made and later buried by Maplewood-based 3M were consumed by 67,000 Twin Cities water drinkers and many more across the country (where MPR reports it's facing at least a dozen other lawsuits).

The four local sites where wastewater containing PFCs were dumped include in Cottage Grove, Oakdale, Woodbury and Lake Elmo.

3M did this, Swanson alleges, knowing full well that PFCs were a health hazard, but in previous decades had sought to mask how much of the chemical was dumped around the Twin Cities.

She cites studies that link PFCs to increased risks of cancer, thyroid disease, fertility issues, liver damage, and impacts on growth and learning in children.

What does 3M say?

The Pioneer Press reports that 3M has conceded that its chemicals are widespread, but argues that they're harmless, only causing disease in laboratory animals in "ultra-high concentrations."

It also denies allegations by Swanson that it covered up PFCs health risks, saying it told officials and kept them informed about its chemical testing and disposal for more than 50 years.

Its attorney told FOX 9 the AG's case "lacks merit," referring to Centers for Disease Control studies that show PFCs in someone's blood doesn't necessarily mean their health will be impacted.

3M settled for $1.5 million in 2006 after it was sued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to disclose information on the toxicity of PFCs and other chemicals.

The state's health department has muddied the waters

The State of Minnesota's case against 3M was dealt a blow last month when the Minnesota Department of Health got involved.

Despite being a state agency, MDH released the results of a study that claims it found no evidence of heightened cancer or "adverse birth outcomes" in the East Metro that could be linked to PFCs in water supplies.

It does say that 3M's contamination caused "serious environmental damage and affected the ground water used by some east metro communities as a source of drinking water," as well as confirming that "PFCs pose a risk to human health."

However, it notes that the new safety laws implemented by the state in 2002 to limit public exposure to PFCs seem to be working, and having examined data for cancer and premature births, could not find anything unusual outside of trends seen elsewhere in the state.

MDH notes it only focused on two health conditions, and says it hasn't done the same research into links between PFCs in the East Metro and liver disease, thyroid conditions, and immune system changes.

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