The Flemish waste management agency Ovam has started cleaning up the site of the former Opel car factory in Antwerp, after the discovery of the presence in the soil of the toxic chemical PFAS.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, is a name denoting any one of a large number of man-made chemicals that do not occur in nature, and are used for a wide variety of industrial applications.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has identified over 4,000 types of PFAS. The chemicals have good water-grease and dirt-repelling features, and so have many applications, including lubricants, packaging, non-stick coatings, clothing, textiles and cosmetics.
However they are also toxic, and difficult to remove once they leak into the environment, which is why they are known as ‘forever chemicals’ – once they enter the environment, they are very difficult to remove.
According to the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, PFAS are widely present in the soil, surface water (and drinking water that comes from surface water) and dredging sludge.
At the Opel site the problem arose when a tank containing fire-fighting foam – another common use for PFAS – leaked the chemicals into the topsoil and groundwater.
According to samples taken by Ovam, the levels in the water were measured at 470 micrograms, where the permitted level is one microgram. In the soil, meanwhile, the level of the closely-related PFOS was found to be 2,400 micrograms per kilo of soil, compared to a permitted level of 100 micrograms.
“This is a severe contamination of the site,” Leuven university toxicologist Jan Tytgat told De Standaard.
“Are there serious risks for people and the environment? That has not been proven on an acute level, but it has been proven over the longer term, from months to years of exposure. Foetal developmental disorders have been reported, as well as hormonal disruptions in child to adolescent growth, with a risk of cancer, liver damage and immunological problems.”
The clean-up operation will be charged to the former owners of the site, General Motors.
When the company closed the factory in 2010, the Port Authority of Antwerp offered to buy, but the two could not agree on a price. In the end, GM sold for €1.8 million less than its asking price of €43.6 million, when the Port Authority took on the responsibility for site cleaning.
But that was before the discovery of large concentrations of forever chemicals. The bill will now be sent to the Detroit-based car manufacturer. How GM will respond, however, remains to be seen.