'Social responsibility': Action needed to stop spread of PFAS

'Social responsibility': Action needed to stop spread of PFAS
The Lantis construction site of the Oosterweelverbinding near the 3M plant. Credit: Belga / Nicolas Maeterlinck

Elevated levels of PFAS have been measured in the air near Zwijndrecht in Antwerp. Flanders has called on the companies involved to take urgent action to prevent further spreading.

During excavation works in 2018 for the Oosterweel link project, the Antwerp bypass, it became apparent that the soil near the site was contaminated with per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a chemical hazardous to human and animal health. The "forever chemicals", which hardly break down in the environment, were found near the site of American multinational 3M, where it produced the harmful substances until 2002.

In the following years, tests showed that the air, soil and blood of people in the area surrounding the 3M factory were contaminated with one such PFAS chemical, PFOS, used among others for its Scotchguard line.

The pollution problem continues to reign in the area: residents can still not eat eggs from their own chickens or home-grown vegetables, while children have to wash their hands after playing outside to limit exposure.

Urgent action needed

On an overarching level, dust control measures were imposed on 3M and Lantis in October 2021 to prevent contaminated dust and water droplets from being blown into surrounding areas.

Until May this year, this helped keep PFAS concentrations in the air below the targeted threshold values. But since then, a measuring station of the Vlaamse Milieu Maatschappij (VMM) in one Zwijndrecht street has recorded very high concentrations of PFAS in the air.

"According to our calculation models, the source would be in the vicinity of the measuring station in Neerstraat, so almost certainly on the premises of Lantis and 3M. The source of this air pollution is most probably soil pollution blowing upwards from the 3M and Lantis sites," said spokesperson for the Environment Department, Ann Heylens.

The Flemish Government stated that there was no immediate threat to public health. It nevertheless urged 3M and Oosterweel builder Lantis to take additional measures against windblown dust causing additional soil pollution, such as shielding the site area, installing a water vapour barrier and wheel washing vehicles before leaving the site.

The site of the 3M plant in Zwijndrecht. Credit: Belga / Eric Lalmand

Lantis immediately started implementing dust control measures at its excavation sites. 3M has made some efforts, such as spraying parts of its site and covering part of the site with pebbles, but the Environment Department has argued that this is not enough.

A recent independent study found that, without additional measures, PFOS levels in soil and groundwater may be exceeded in the short term, and added that further development of the dust control plan is "strongly recommended".

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At the end of July, the Public Flemish Waste Company (OVAM) called on 3M to draw up and comply with an updated dust mitigation plan for the entire site in Zwijndrecht. The plan had to contain a description of the condition of the site and all the measures to minimise the spread of PFAS soil contamination from the 3M site via the atmosphere. The deadline for the plan was Monday 14 August.

"The fact that companies are asked to take up their social responsibility to reduce their impact is self-evident. The people and our society is entitled to that," said Environment Minister Zuhal Demir.

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