Second pollution investigation into 3M Antwerp

Second pollution investigation into 3M Antwerp
The 3M plant at the centre of the pollution. Credit: Belga

The prosecutor’s office in Antwerp has opened a second investigation into the activities of the chemical company 3M, which has a factory in Zwijndrecht, just across the river from the city.

3M is already under investigation for the leakage from its plant of the chemical PFAS

Previously, water and soil in the vicinity of the factory was found to show the presence of PFOS, a close relative of PFAS, and another product of chemical processes. That was later confirmed by the Flemish Research Institute for Technological Research (VITO) and the Flemish Agency for the Environment (VMM).

However the researchers have so far been unable to confirm whether the contamination comes from 3M or from the building works close by, concerned with the Oosterweel motorway link. What is clear is that as measurements are taken further away from those two sites, the levels of PFOS diminish, by as much as nine times in the case of Zwijndrecht.

Now the Antwerp prosecutor’s office is turning its attention to a leak of sodium hydroxide (NaOH), commonly known as caustic soda, which is used industrially in the manufacture of pulp and paper, textiles, drinking water, soaps and detergents, and domestically as a drain cleaner. It’s use in industry, as an ingredient of soap, has been dated back to an Arab book of the 13th century. It was then made from the ash of the burned saltwort plant (al-qily in Arabic, hence the name) and calcium oxide, also known as quicklime.

The chemical that led to the original investigation concerned PFAS, very closely related to PFOS. The remediation in that case involved covering the site in tonnes of earth dug up as part of the Oosterweel motorway construction.

Now it could be that the increased readings of PFOS being found now come from residue contained in soil from that operation. No-one is for the time being willing to speculate.

Meanwhile the case against the company for breaking safety conditions and then failing to report the resulting leak of NaOH is almost certain to be brought to court, and will be tried in the correctional court in Antwerp.


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