Residents of Belgian town living through nightmare of 'forever chemical' pollution

3M factory in Zwijndrecht, Antwerp
3M factory in Zwijndrecht, Antwerp Copyright DAVID PINTENS/fotodp.be
By Gregoire Lory
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PFAS are a group of over 9,000 man-made chemicals that are used in products including textiles, cars and electronics.

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Residents of a small town in Belgium are experiencing a living nightmare, as they deal with the knowledge that the land around them is contaminated with so-called "forever chemicals", otherwise known as Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). 

Zwijndrecht, situated in a Flemish district near the city of Antwerp, is one of Europe's main hot spots for areas contaminated with PFAS chemicals - notorious for their indestructible nature and extremely slow degradation rates. 

Local inhabitants say that the multinational company 3M is responsible for the contamination, given that they have a chemical plant in the area that processes PFASs. The area's residents have been advised to stop eating the fruit, vegetables and eggs produced there. 

But this caution goes beyond just food, according to Vincent Deleu, a resident of Zwijndrecht.

"We are asked not to work with our bare hands in the soil," Deleu said in an interview.

"There are people, like my wife, who work the land with gloves. We are also asked to 'be careful, [for] grandchildren [to] play in the grass. Don't overdo it. Climb trees. Be careful!' In the end we can't do anything else."

He no longer sells his eggs, but does not want to sacrifice his 300 fruit trees and three vegetable gardens.

This is despite the fact that PFAS, which are found in water and soil, can lead to an increased risk of cancer and thyroid disease and can also lead to a reduced immune response to vaccines in children.

Deleu even speaks of some residents discussing suicide.

"Other people who have a beautiful garden say: 'Listen, I don't go out in my garden anymore. I don't go out at all - at all," he said.

"There are people who have had a burnout. There are people who have sometimes used the word 'suicide'. There hasn't been a case of suicide, let's be honest. But there are people who are really scared."

PFAS chemicals are used in the textile, automotive and electronics industries for non-stick coatings on stoves, fire-fighting foams and rainwear.

Toon Penen, another resident of Zwijndrecht, described to Euronews how bad the situation really is.

"The site of 3M is indeed the biggest polluter - I think even in Europe, I think for PFAS, even worldwide has the most concentration," Penen said.

"The concentrations here are never seen ever again. It's the same like the concentrations in the blood of the people in Zwijndrecht - it's also the highest that scientists have ever seen in a human being."

When contacted by Euronews, 3M said that it will "work to discontinue the use of PFAS across its product portfolio by the end of 2025", adding that it "does not change 3M’s long-standing position that the company has and continues to act responsibly".

The American group reached an agreement last year with the Flemish government to invest €571 million in the area, including €250 million to identify priority remedial actions.

Just last month, the European Chemical Agency, the EU body responsible for managing such substances, laid out proposals that would effectively ban the use and production of around 10,000 PFAS chemicals.

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