Bloomberg Headline: 3M’s ‘Forever Chemicals’ Crisis Has Come to Europe
Subheadline: The fight over a tunnel project in Antwerp has revealed extraordinary levels of toxins in the water, soil, and people near the company’s factory. This time there could be criminal charges.
The soil around Wendy D’Hollander’s Belgian farmhouse is so saturated with the chemical PFOS, produced in Antwerp by 3M Co., that she’s in what’s called the red zone. Belgian officials have ordered 3M to draw up a plan by July 1 to scrape off as much as 5 feet of soil on D’Hollander’s 2.5 acres. More than 4,500 other families face a similar fate, with varying depths of soil to be carted away to a still undetermined location.
D’Hollander knew something was wrong a decade ago. She was working toward a Ph.D. in biology and living with her parents and daughter in the farmhouse. The setting, in the suburb of Zwijndrecht, is bucolic and lovely, save for the 3M plant across a highway.
During her research, she discovered that eggs from birds close to the plant had some of the highest concentrations ever reported of PFOS, an ingredient in fabric coatings and firefighting foams. Then she tested herself. PFOS—perfluorooctanesulfonic acid—is referred to as a forever chemical, because it accumulates in soil, rivers, and drinking water and is almost impossible to get rid of. She had about 300 micrograms of it per liter in her blood, more than 60 times the level recommended as safe today by the European Union.
“The criminal case makes this more serious for 3M than what’s happened in the US”
3M has been having a PFAS reckoning. It paid $850 million in 2018 to settle, without admitting wrongdoing, a case in its home state of Minnesota over forever chemicals, and it’s contending with a cascade of lawsuits elsewhere. What’s happening in Belgium may be the most significant threat, because the company is facing criminal charges of illegally dumping waste. It could end up paying more than $1 billion for compensation and cleanup, says Isabelle Larmuseau, a prominent environmental lawyer based in Ghent, Belgium, who’s not representing anyone in the legal cases under way. “The criminal case makes this more serious for 3M than what’s happened in the US,” she says. “If convicted, 3M will not only have to face sky-high costs of compensating people and cleaning up the contamination, but prison sentences can be handed out.”
Through a spokesman, 3M denied any criminal behavior. “3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS and will continue to vigorously defend its record,” the spokesman said.
3M released PFOS into the air in Belgium for at least 20 years. For even longer, it allowed contaminated groundwater to seep into the Scheldt, a 350-kilometer (217-mile) river that starts in France and runs through Belgium and the Netherlands into the North Sea.
Documents disclosed in lawsuits in the US showed that 3M knew for decades about the dangers of exposure to PFAS chemicals but didn’t inform the public. During the 1970s and ’80s, it conducted studies on its US workers that showed PFAS building up in the bloodstream. In 1977 the company determined PFOS was “more toxic than anticipated” in a study of rats and monkeys; in 1978 a monkey study had to be stopped after all the animals died within the first few days because the PFOS doses were too high. In 1980, minutes from an internal 3M meeting said workers at the factory in Antwerp were told the chemicals had been found in human blood, but the company decided not to tell the Belgian government.
I am happy to hear the Belgium government is calling them to task. Things will not change, we will not move towards a cleaner healthier environment until there are more painful consequences like this. Thanks for posting the article.
I no longer eat fish caught in near shore waters in the Florida Keys. Microplastics, untreated sewage from ancient septic tanks not hooked up the waste water lines, the injection wells of treated sewer water now leaking into waters near my home, and now . . . the return of these damned cruise ships which are so large they blot out sunsets down in Key West. But I can say, the soil here where I plant my vegetables, as thin as it is, is not polluted by any industrial toxins. I would not want to be living anywhere near any plant making anything out of carbon based fossil fuels.
(I can remember when 3M was once thought of as one of the best run blue chip firms, with management conscious of making the world a better place, yada, yada. I’m sure the Usual Suspects from management responsible for this pollution has long ago retired by golden parachuting into Galt’s Gulch.)