MAPLEWOOD, Minn. - Scotchgard is back.
The familiar plaid aerosol can never really disappeared from the
shelves. But Scotchgard's journey back to the market has been rocky
-- and the stain repellent is still missing from the furniture
upholstery industry. 3M's venerable line of fabric protectants -- so
ubiquitous that ``Scotchgard'' became a verb -- has been struggling
since the Environmental Protection Agency pressed 3M in 2000 to stop
using the chemistry behind the spray.
3M, based in Maplewood, has lost two-thirds of its former $300
million-a-year Scotchgard business and hopes to rebuild it to $500
million by 2008. Finally finished with its phase-out and armed with
a new formula it says is safe and better than ever, 3M is launching
major Scotchgard replacements this summer, marketing them like new
Clothing pretreated with Scotchgard will reappear in stores this
summer, with the debut of the new Scotchgard aerosol spray for
consumers. A new ad campaign is slated for this winter. And
Scotchgard is headed for places it hasn't been before, like eyeglass
lenses and paint.
But it can't happen fast enough for Wall Street, which wants to
know what's taking so long even as the EPA sharpens scrutiny of the
chemical family behind both Scotchgards, old and new.
And there's some confusion among Scotchgard customers.
``I thought they discontinued this stuff,'' said a woman picking
up a can of the new Scotchgard at 3M's recent shareholders
For nearly 50 years 3M has marketed Scotchgard, a bedrock brand
that evolved after some rubber particles a chemist cooked up in 1953
accidentally splattered on an assistant's tennis shoe. The stubborn
goo wouldn't come off.
Scotchgard grew to encompass some 100 products -- most based on a
key chemical known for its remarkable ability to repel nearly
anything people threw at it. The chemical breaks down into
perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, a manmade substance that is part
of a family of chemicals characterized by chains of carbon atoms of
various lengths bonded to fluorine atoms, yielding armorlike
compounds. PFOS has a chain of eight carbon atoms, or C8.
But PFOS began showing up everywhere: in polar bears, dolphins,
baby eagles, tap water and human blood. So did its eight-carbon
cousin perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, which 3M sold to other
companies such as DuPont for use in products like Teflon.
Linked to cancer
The two manmade perfluorochemicals don't decompose in nature.
They kill laboratory rats at high doses, and there are potential
links to tissue problems, developmental delays and some forms of
3M knew much of this because it had studied the chemicals for
decades. It insists that at typical low levels found in Scotchgard
and elsewhere the chemicals posed no health or environmental
A former employee has sued the company over exposure to
perflourochemicals at the company's Decatur, Ala., plant. 3M says
the case has no merit.
Yet accounts differ as to whether 3M voluntarily phased out the
problematic C8 chemistry or was pressured by the EPA after the
company shared its data in late 1999. The EPA concluded PFOS was
toxic. Either way, the phase-out was largely completed in December,
although 3M still makes small amounts of PFOA for its own use in
Germany. 3M, which still monitors chemical plants in Cottage Grove,
Minn.; Decatur; and Antwerp, Belgium, insists there are no risks for
employees who handled or were exposed to the chemicals.
The phase-out went unnoticed by most consumers as 3M rapidly
substituted another, less effective spray for consumers. But the
move stunned industrial clients -- the bulk of Scotchgard's
business. 3M's chemists scrambled to reformulate Scotchgard for all
its markets, but the lags have hurt.
The replacement aerosol-can Scotchgard that 3M first distributed
to stores didn't work as well as the original. It was based on
non-perfluoro chemistry and worked on water but not grease. Nothing
repels like perfluorochemicals, 3M concluded. The challenge was to
find safe ones.
3M settled on perfluorobutane sulfonate, or PFBS, a four-carbon
cousin of the chemical in the old Scotchgard, as the building block
for Scotchgard's new generation.
``For providing protection you almost can't do it without a
fluoro-chemical, short of plastic slipcovers,'' said Michael
Harnetty, vice president of 3M's protective materials division.
The new C4-based Scotchgard is completely safe, 3M says. The
company adds that it has worked closely with the EPA and has
performed more than 40 studies, which are confidential. The EPA