The chemical company 3M in Zwijndrecht has to temporarily shut down part of its production. This was decided by the Flemish government after high concentrations of the toxic PFAS were discovered in the blood of local residents.
On Thursday, a delegation from 3M was called to the attention of the Flemish environmental inspectorate. The reason is the recent blood test among 800 residents living near the 3M factory in Zwijndrecht, which shows that nine out of ten have PFOS levels in the blood that are too high. At six out of ten, the value is so high that it poses long-term health risks. The results are causing a lot of unrest in Zwijndrecht.
For Flemish Minister of the Environment Zuhal Demir (N-VA) enough was enough. She gave the American chemical giant one last chance to prove that the factory no longer exposes local residents to PFOS or other toxic substances from the PFAS family. Otherwise she threatened to close part of it. “This is the moment of truth. If there is no clarity, we will not fail to shut down production processes,” she warned.
After a consultation with Demir and a team of lawyers, the inspectorate is now putting words to action. “We conclude that the information provided by 3M is not sufficient and does not provide sufficient clarity about the presence of PFAS in the production processes and in the emissions to the environment,” it said in a statement. “Temporarily shutting down the production processes involved is currently the only way to ensure that exposure risks for local residents do not increase further.”
It only concerns the production lines where PFAS are released, not the entire factory. “This is a temporary situation until 3M can provide the necessary guarantees,” said the inspectorate. Karl Vrancken, the Flemish contract holder for the coordination of the PFAS approach, calls it “crucial” that we gain insight “into all processes at 3M that cause PFAS emissions”.
In the meantime, residents living in the vicinity of the factory are getting more clarity about their exposure to the harmful substances. The Flemish government has decided to give everyone who lives within five kilometers the opportunity to have his or her blood analysed. This analysis will take several months. The costs of the operation will be recovered from 3M, says Flemish Minister of Health Wouter Beke (CD&V). “It is clear that the company bears a very great responsibility.”
Those exposed to high concentrations of PFAS run a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. That is why local residents were previously advised not to eat home-grown vegetables or eggs from their own chickens.
3M now claims that the pollution in Zwijndrecht cannot possibly come from them. 3 grams of PFAS substances would be emitted annually from the factory chimney. A value that is too low to explain the high PFAS level in the blood of local residents, said top woman Rebecca Teeters in a rare interview with the VRT. “The measured values show that they have nothing to do with 3M’s current emissions, and everything to do with the historical pollution of the past few years.”
According to Teeters, 3M’s own employees have blood values that are up to ten times higher than what has been measured in Zwijndrecht, without adverse effects. In recent days, the company has threatened job losses and delays for the Oosterweel works if the government shut down its factory. According to the environmental inspectorate, the temporary closure is of such a nature that it “shouldn’t necessarily have a long-term impact on the employment provided by 3M”.
On Friday, the PFAS committee of inquiry also questioned toxicologist Jan Tytgat about his role in the PFOS crisis. Tytgat submitted a critical report to Oosterweelbouwheer Lantis in 2017, but did nothing further with it. “I am not an environmental police,” says the expert. “When I prepare a report, I only deliver it to the client.”