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IN MAP: At least 72 factories emit toxic substances in Flanders. Check how much PFAS is emitted in your municipality here

In as many as one in four Flemish municipalities PFOS or another toxic substance from the PFAS family has been measured in recent years. This is according to research by Het Laatste Nieuws and VTM Nieuws. The toxic substances have been found at at least 72 factory sites in Flanders and are massively present in Flemish streams and rivers. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: “Everywhere we measure, we find it.” On the map below you can check how much PFAS is emitted in your region.

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It will be difficult to find a place in Flanders where there is not yet any PFAS in the soil or in the water. Research shows that the toxic substances, which in recent years have been produced mainly by the chemical company 3M, are now spread throughout almost all of Flanders. In at least one in four Flemish municipalities PFAS has been measured several times in recent years by the environmental authorities. This usually concerns the well-known PFOS, but PFOA and PFBS can also be found in large quantities in Flanders. Industrialized West Flanders has the dubious honor of being the leader, but the toxic substances have also been measured in many places in the provinces of Antwerp and East Flanders. Limburg and Flemish Brabant come in at places four and five.

THE PFAS VALUES IN THE MAP BELOW ARE THE MAXIMUM VALUES MEASURED IN WASTEWATER FROM BUSINESS SITES, WATERWAYS AND FISH SINCE 2009. SOME COMPANIES THAT ARE ALLOWED TO DISCHARGE PFAS HAVE NEVER BEEN CHECKED BY VMM.

Het Laatste Nieuws asked all environmental agencies to list where PFAS has been measured since 2009. The results are astonishing. PFAS is not only found in the vicinity of polluting factory sites, but also in almost all Flemish rivers and streams. It turns out that the annual averages are above the standard in 89 out of 92 cases. This means that the water in our rivers and streams is full of PFAS, too much to be healthy. This is also evident from analyses of our fish: one in four fish, mainly eel and perch, have an unhealthy dose of PFAS in their bodies.

Not eating fish you have caught yourself
“Everywhere we measure PFAS in surface water, we also find it,” responds Katrien Smet of the Flemish Environment Agency (VMM). “We have to take into account that water does not stop at borders and therefore it can be found everywhere in Flanders, in all streams and rivers.” That is why the Flemish Government has long been advocating not eating fish that you have caught yourself.

In no less than seventeen West Flemish municipalities there is at least one company that uses and discharges PFAS. East Flanders comes in second with fifteen municipalities. Although the port of Antwerp also remains heavily affected. There are perhaps not the most companies to be found there, but those that do discharge PFAS often do so in extremely high quantities.

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Tip of the iceberg

And yet this seems to be just the tip of the iceberg. Quite a few factories that discharged FPAS in the past no longer exist or are no longer licensed, but PFAS can certainly still be found there. “Some of the pollution is indeed historical,” adds Katrien Smet of the VMM. “Another part comes from outside Flanders. But there is indeed still dumping, even by factories that don’t know it themselves.” But PFAS can also be found at fire stations and sewage treatment plants.

Should we be worried about this now? “We are of course concerned about this,” explains PFAS commissioner Karl Vrancken. “But this is not an acute health problem that requires drastic measures. We do want to see as soon as possible where the risk of exposure is greatest, and we will take precautions there as well.”