To avert PFOS pollution problems, ‘tough environmental change is required’

Groen, a green party in Flanders, is advocating for a comprehensive overhaul of the region’s environmental policies to avoid such pollution crises in the future.

The Agency for Care and Health testified at a hearing of the PFOS Committee of Enquiry on Monday, which is investigating the health effects of PFOS-contaminated land near the American chemical company 3M’s site in Zwijndrecht, as well as the role played by the business, the government, and the agency in allowing this to happen.

“The Agency is also supposed to provide permit advice.” However, those opinions never arrived: 3M repeatedly received a silent opinion from the Agency for Care and Health. This means that no studies on the health implications have been conducted.”

The Committee was formed after it was discovered that dangerous quantities of the “Forever chemical,” PFOS, or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, a toxin harmful to human and animal health, were found in the water and soil around the 3M factory, something the government allegedly kept quiet for years.

Blood tests and dust samples later revealed that the chemical, which is part of the PFAS group, had contaminated the blood of over 60% of surrounding residents as well as the air around the facility.

As a result of 3M’s failure to prove that its emissions do not affect the environment or people, the government ordered parts of its production to be halted.

Groen said the existing policy should be revised, emphasising on the reversal of the burden of proof for the sector, ahead of Monday’s hearing, during which the Committee’s members questioned the agency’s administrator general, Dirk Dewolf, on “who knew what, when.”

Currently, environmental agency inspectors are responsible for determining whether a company is endangering the health of local residents; however, the party believes that this responsibility should be transferred to the industry, as the current system only allows inspectors to get to work “when there is pollution and it is too late for the health of local residents.”

Dewolf provided several recommendations, including reversing the burden of evidence, based on the notion that environmental damage “must be addressed at the source.”

“It should be up to the chemical business, as it is with pharmaceutical companies, to establish that man-made chemicals are not eco-toxic or possibly detrimental to humans.”

He went on to say that companies producing potentially toxic substances must have a duty of care, regardless of the conditions of the permit granted to them, “as is the case in the United States,” which means they are responsible for any health damage caused to people as a result of their production processes.

Dewolf went on to say that Flanders is working on a PFAS policy, and that Belgium, in general, is supporting the European Union’s prohibition on the chemical by gradually phaseing out PFAS-containing substances.

Finally, he underlined that multiple administrations must enhance their coordination in order to reduce the hazards of existing pollution, and that an intelligent database and policy surrounding this must be built, allowing technology to foresee associations in the prospective risks involved.

Yet, as both Schauvliege and Dewolf point out, one of the major issues the agency faces when it comes to giving recommendations to the government for issuing permits is budget cuts in environmental administration, resulting in fewer employees available to oversee regulation.

“Since 2010, the agency has lost 36% of its workforce.” This is incredible, and it has an unmistakable impact on policy quality,” said Schauvliege, who added that 20 percent of the most polluting industries have never been inspected due to budget cuts at the Environment Department.

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