Fears that Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co. could be the next corporate giant taken hostage by burgeoning asbestos liabilities dragged the company's shares down more than five percent Wednesday.

A startling number of large U.S. companies, from chemicals giant Dow Chemical Co. to oilfield services company Halliburton Co., have watched their share prices plunge as investors worry the number and magnitude of asbestos claims against them could destroy their profits.

3M's shares were the next to feel the heat Wednesday, sinking $6.00, or 5.5 percent, to $103.50 on the New York Stock Exchange and saddling the entire Dow Jones industrial average.

"Anybody with any hint of asbestos exposure is getting taken down. It's a witch hunt," said ABN AMRO analyst David Begleiter.

Still, it's natural for investors be wary of companies with asbestos exposure, Begleiter said, because mounting fears of asbestos liabilities have pummeled shares of other companies facing asbestos claims.

In its form 10-Q filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission Nov. 13 last year, 3M said a jury in Holmes County, Mississippi, ruled that it pay $22.5 million to four plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs alleged that 3M's respirators and masks failed to protect them from contracting asbestos-related diseases.

The company said it was a defendant in roughly 20,000 lawsuits in various courts as of the end of last September. Those cases purport to represent about 85,000 individual claimants.

A spokeswoman for 3M had no immediate comment.

Prudential Securities analyst Nicholas Heymann said most of 3M's asbestos-related cases to date have been settled for much smaller sums of money than the Mississippi laborers were awarded.

"What happens is that they settle each one out of court on a case-by-case basis for $1,500 or $1,800," he said. 3M said in the filing that its current average settlement value is less than $1,000.

The Mississippi case was also the first asbestos-related case 3M lost -- juries ruled in favor of the company in the two previous cases that went to court.

Still, investors on Wednesday began to fear that the remaining 85,000 claimants in lawsuits against 3M could receive larger payouts, analysts said.

While 3M said it believes the lawsuits will not have an adverse impact on its financial position, it also admitted in the filing "there can be no certainty that the company may not ultimately incur charges for litigation in excess of presently recorded liabilities."

3M said it will challenge and possibly appeal the Mississippi verdict. It also said it has substantial product liability insurance to protect it from asbestos claims.

Nine U.S. companies have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since January 2000 as a result of the financial burden of asbestos claims.

Many of those companies -- along with Dow, Halliburton, Viacom, and Georgia-Pacific, which are currently fighting claims -- have said their reserves and insurance would be enough to cover any potential asbestos-related liability.

As of the end of September, 3M said it had asbestos liabilities of $122 million, while expected receivables from insurance totaled $184 million.