By Sharon L. Caffrey and Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.
Duane Morris Synopsis—The Attorney General of California has filed a first of its kind lawsuit against several named manufacturers and “John Doe” manufacturers of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (commonly known as PFAS and PFOA) based upon the same public nuisance theory used by several attorneys general and local governments against opioid manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacies in nationwide class action litigation. Claiming that defendants knew PFAS, PFOA, and related chemicals were harmful but put the chemicals into the market and into the environment with insufficient testing, and claiming the PFAS can be found in the bloodstreams of virtually every Californian, the Attorney General is seeking both equitable and financial relief, including an injunction against further sales of products containing PFAS and PFOA, remediation, and monetary damages. The lawsuit is a blockbuster of ambitious claims, and given the ubiquitous nature of PFAS and PFOA, this case is one of potential concern for any manufacturer whose products or processes may result in the ingestion or release of PFAS and PFOA.
On behalf of the People of California, the California Attorney General is seeking remediation and damages of soil and groundwater allegedly contaminated with PFAS and PFOA. PFAS and PFOA are sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals” because of their bio-durability in soil, groundwater, and in the human body. In a nod to the playbook of successful class actions against another industry, the Attorney General’s action relies on the same public nuisance theory used in the opioid litigation, as well as traditional product liability failure to warn theories of liability.
PFAS and PFOA are found in a “wide array of products and industrial processes,” including products as common as food packaging, carpet and fabric coatings and cleaning products. The claim centers on the release of PFAs and PFOA into drinking water sources, including bays, lakes and streams. Claiming exposure to PFAS and PFOA contributes to certain cancers, adverse pregnancy outcomes, delayed puberty, and infertility, among other harms, the Attorney General’s suit notes that PFAS and PFOA are ingested orally and persist in the body because they are not readily broken down.
In support of his claims, the Attorney General relies primarily on toxicology studies and some in vitro studies, as well as very limited human epidemiologic evidence that PFAS and PFOA are associated with certain adverse health outcomes. The complaint also notes that the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) listed PFOA and PFOS as chemicals known to cause reproductive toxicity under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, commonly known as “Prop 65.” The Complaint further asserts that the EPA intends to issue enforceable National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs) for drinking water contaminants, to include PFAS and PFOA by the end of 2022. Because PFAS and PFOA are not readily broken down in soil, water or the human body, they are found in over 97 percent of all Californians’ bloodstreams. Finally, the Attorney General’s lawsuit claims that defendants put products containing PFAS and PFOA in the stream of commerce without adequate testing or warnings of the harms they could cause, or while being aware of the potential harms and not warning the public.
Implications For Manufacturers
At present California is the only state that has filed a claim against manufacturers who allegedly put PFAS and PFOA into groundwater and soil. California’s unique Prop 65 is part of the basis for the Attorney General’s claim. However, if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issues enforceable limits on PFAS and PFOA in drinking water, similar suits will inevitably arise in other jurisdictions. Companies who believe they may be at risk for similar claims should consult with counsel about the best way to mitigate any exposure for such litigation.