Beeld: Stan Heerkens

Toxins in Scheldt River – The art of looking away

Enormous quantities of a carcinogenic toxin were dumped by the 3M chemical plant near Antwerp and ended up in the Netherlands via the Scheldt. “We did not know that public health was at risk.” This is what the ministers responsible for the decision to keep quiet about the PFOS contamination in 2017 said. In reality, there were numerous signs that there was a danger to public health. These signs were systematically ignored for fifteen years, according to a reconstruction for Knack and Vrij Nederland by The Investigative Desk.

By Tim Luimes and Tomas Vanheste | 7 June 2022

The 3M chemical plant has been the focus of Flemish attention for a year now. In the spring of 2021, digging by citizen activist Thomas Goorden revealed that the area around 3M was heavily polluted with PFOS. This hazardous substance belongs to the PFAS family, which consists of thousands of chemicals that remain in the environment forever and whose devastating effect on ecosystems and human health is becoming increasingly apparent.

The 3M plant is located a stone’s throw away from the Scheldt, which flows into the Netherlands, a mere fifteen kilometres away. When it became clear last year that 3M was allowed to discharge PFOS into the Scheldt hundreds of times more than permitted in the Netherlands, the Dutch province of Zeeland was outraged. Because PFOS accumulates in nature, the levels in fish from the Westerschelde exceed the RIVM safe norm 800 times, according to research by professor of environmental chemistry and toxicology and PFAS expert Jacob de Boer from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam last autumn. “That’s really enormous,” he said.

For more than fifteen years, the Flemish government ignored serious indications that the PFOS pollution in Zwijndrecht formed a danger to public health. This can be explained by a multitude of system errors: a fragmentation of responsibilities, the major role given to private parties with commercial interests and a poor connection between science and policy.

The Investigative Desk made a reconstruction of what led to this situation. How could a disaster like this happen? And why was the alarm never raised?

Read the full article in Knack and Vrij Nederland.

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