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The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) and Grondrecht, a collective of concerned citizens that formed in response to large-scale PFAS pollution by a 3M factory near Antwerp, have today called on the Belgian federal government to get involved in the addressing of the contamination and the related consequences for the health of nearby communities and the environment [1]. 

The operations of the chemical factory have resulted in the emission, dumping and discharge of PFOS – one of the most infamous members of the PFAS group, which is classified as a presumed reproductive toxicant and suspected carcinogen in the EU and is listed as a Persistent Organic Pollutant (POP) under the international Stockholm Convention – in the areas of Antwerp and Zwijndrecht, which together host around half a million of inhabitants [2]. 

Human exposure to the substance has been associated with very severe health outcomes, which include but are not limited to: interferences with the hormonal system, effects on the reproductive system and the development of the unborn child, on the immune system including the response to vaccines, and the development of certain cancers (including kidney). The International Federation of Gynecologists and Obstetricians (FIGO) recently called for an immediate phase-out of all PFAS, including PFOS, stressing the health risks they pose throughout our lifetime [3].

Information about the pollution in the Antwerp area has been available since 2004, but it only recently caught public and political attention because of the massive infrastructure project of Oosterweel, which is supposed to take place in the polluted area. According to media reports from June 2021, the Flemish government appears to have known of the pollution since at least 2017 [4]. However, no measure was taken to stop and prevent further pollution until the very recent order of temporary suspension of PFAS production by the local government at the end of October 2021 [5]. 

Researchers from the University of Antwerp found that eggs hatched within a 15-kilometer radius of the PFAS-producing factory were found to pose health risks. Because of that, food consumption guidelines were recently communicated to local communities [6]. In the meantime, virtually no measure has been taken to date to remedy the pollution and to monitor potential health and environmental consequences over the mid- and long-term.

And yet, PFOS pollution has been a reality with which communities in Zwijndrecht and Antwerp have had to deal with on their own. Sampling organized by Grondrecht and carried out by researchers of the Free University of Amsterdam found excessively high PFOS concentrations in the blood of local residents, with all samples exceeding the recently updated threshold for various PFAS chemicals [7]. These alarming findings were again confirmed by the recent results of an analysis conducted by the Flemish Care and Health Agency, which found excessive PFOS levels in the blood of more than half of the 800 citizens tested [8]. 

Given the seriousness of the situation and the need for immediate action, HEAL and Grondrecht are therefore calling on the Belgian federal government to step in.  

Our six demands to the Belgian federal government following the PFOS scandal include: 

  1. Respond to and support the local communities’ request for transparency and accountability about the pollution and the related health and environmental consequences;
  2. Guarantee the precise mapping of the sites requesting cleanup and their effective decontamination, including the site where the Oosterweel-project is currently being developed;
  3. Ensure the due monitoring of the evolution of environmental contamination (through regular measurements in water and soil);
  4. Guarantee that every possible measure is being implemented to ensure that local communities can have access to clean and safe water and food;
  5. Ensure the due monitoring of the health-related risks of long-term exposure to PFOS for surrounding communities (including through regular large-scale human biomonitoring for all nearby residents and health follow up for those most at risk) and workforces of the companies concerned. Currently, the Flemish government does not plan to provide individualized testing for all (e.g. for children, for people who have moved out of the area, for inhabitants of Antwerp) and long-term monitoring of individual health situations. Because of this lack of action, we appeal to the federal government to step in.
  6. Guarantee that the polluter-pays principle is being implemented, namely that the companies responsible for the pollution in the first place are legally and financially kept accountable.

Contact:

Natacha Cingotti, Health and Chemicals Programme Lead, natacha@env-health.org

Jonas Vernimmen, Coordinator, Grondrecht, jonas@grondrecht.eu

Notes:

  1. The letter is available in English, Dutch and French.
  2. PFOS is listed as a Persistent Organic Pollutant (POP) under the Stockholm Convention and it is classified as a presumed reproductive toxicant and suspected carcinogen under the European hazard classification system.See Stockholm Convention, SC-4/17, Listing of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, its salts and perfluorooctane sulfonyl fluoride, available from http://chm.pops.int/Implementation/IndustrialPOPs/PFOS/Decisions/tabid/5222/Default.aspx; ECHA, Substance Infocard, https://echa.europa.eu/fr/substance-information/-/substanceinfo/100.015.618 
  3. Exposure to PFOS has been associated with a number of severe health impacts, such as interferences with the hormonal system, effects on the reproductive system and the development of unborn children, effects on the immune system and decreased response to vaccines, and the development of certain cancers.See for example: https://www.hbm4eu.eu/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/HBM4EU_D4.9_Scoping_Documents_HBM4EU_priority_substances_v1.0-PFAS.pdf.See also FIGO calls for removal of PFAS from global use, 25th May 2021, https://www.figo.org/figo-calls-removal-pfas-global-use

    See also joint FIGO-UCSF-HEAL multilingual infographic on the health risks associated with PFAS exposure: https://www.env-health.org/how-pfas-chemicals-affect-women-pregnancy-and-human-development-health-actors-call-for-urgent-action-to-phase-them-out/

  4. https://pro.politico.eu/news/zwijndrecht-antwerp-flanders-belgium-3m-dangerous-chemical-pollution-pfas-perfluorooctanesulfonic-acid
  5. https://www.brusselstimes.com/news/belgium-all-news/191650/pollution-scandal-3m-ordered-to-stop-production-after-failing-to-prove-no-harm-to-environment/
  6. https://www.brusselstimes.com/news/belgium-all-news/173456/3m-pollution-pfos-eggs-hatched-within-15-km-of-factory-in-antwerp-pose-health-risks-says-uantwerp/
  7. In the summer 2021, sampling organized by Grondrecht and carried out by researchers of the Free University of Amsterdam found excessively high PFOS concentrations in the blood of local residents, with all samples exceeding the recently updated safety threshold for the sum of PFOA, PFNA, PFHxS and PFOS of the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA). https://grondrecht.eu/facts/actueel/persbericht-bloedonderzoek-zwijndrecht/
  8. Agentschap Zorg en Gezondheid, Bloedonderzoek toont hoge waarden van PFOS bij meer dan de helft van de deelnemers – no-regretmaatregelen worden uitgebreid, 26 October 2021, https://www.zorg-en-gezondheid.be/bloedonderzoek-toont-hoge-waarden-van-pfos-bij-meer-dan-de-helft-van-de-deelnemers-%E2%80%93-no