3M Belgium factory
3M’s chemical factory near Antwerp. It’s now partially shuttered. Photograph by SIPAPRE

3M’s ‘Forever Chemicals’ Crisis Has Come to Europe

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.

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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.

At the time, she was pregnant with her second child. She immediately tried to limit her exposure by avoiding locally produced eggs—she thought that might be the key contamination route, because the chemical binds to proteins. In 2012 she wrote to the mayor of Zwijndrecht, warning him that local eggs posed a serious problem. She never got a response.

Life steamed ahead. D’Hollander is now 40 and has three children. Her family has lived on that plot of land since the late 1800s, so she never seriously contemplated moving. Knowledge of the health risks associated with forever chemicals was still evolving, and she didn’t know the extent of the contamination. “I thought it was just those eggs really near the factory,” she says.

Wendy D’Hollander
Wendy D’Hollander lives in the contamination red zone. Photographer: Sabine Rovers for Bloomberg Businessweek

Last year she found out her 65-year-old mother had 1,100 micrograms of PFOS per liter of blood—a concentration more typically found in industrial wastewater. Her 68-year-old father had about 800. Her 19-year-old daughter tested at 300. D’Hollander’s own level had come down to about 100, which she attributes to not eating eggs and to breastfeeding, a theory backed up by studies showing mothers pass on high amounts of the chemical through their milk. She and her mother both have malfunctioning thyroids, a condition now associated with PFOS, and doctors have told them that at some point the drugs they take for the condition will stop working. Other health problems associated with high PFOS levels include high cholesterol, diabetes, hormone and immune disorders, and even diminished vaccine efficacy.

“I feel a bit guilty now that I didn’t put more pressure on authorities to do something 10 years ago,” says D’Hollander. Now she waits for 3M to begin undoing the damage—not to her family, because that’s done, but to the land. “I’m not sure how they will deal with some of our trees which are more than 100 years old,” she says. “And I’m not sure how they will compensate us if we are living in a mud pit.”

3M is close to residential and farming areas
The view of 3M’s factory from the D’Hollander property. Photographer: Sabine Rovers for Bloomberg Businessweek

3M is at the center of a major political scandal in Belgium, where the company produced PFOS from 1976 to 2002. PFOS is one of thousands of types of PFAS—perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. All the PFAS chemicals produced by 3M and other companies are considered forever chemicals.

It’s possible the contamination wouldn’t have come to light if the government hadn’t pushed ahead with a €4.5 billion ($4.8 billion) project to build a network of roads, tunnels, and parks to finish a ring road around Antwerp. To complete the construction, the state-owned highway company, Lantis, needs to dig up almost 14 million cubic meters (494.4 million cubic feet) of soil, roughly enough to fill the Great Pyramid of Giza five times over. The project, known locally as the Oosterweel, is an attempt to unclog the snarl of trucks around the Port of Antwerp in one of the most densely populated corners of Europe. It’s been 20 years in the making, dogged all along the way by opposition. The most challenging part: a tunnel that will run under the Scheldt River and pop out close to 3M on the left bank. This section of Antwerp is home to Europe’s largest cluster of chemical factories. If there were ever a place not to dig a tunnel, it would be here.

The contamination was exposed last year in the battle over what to do with all that dirt. The result has been a criminal probe into the company, a parliamentary commission that’s hauled ministers in for questioning, and a public outcry over the potential health risks to tens of thousands of local residents. At the end of October, the government of the Flanders region ordered 3M to shut down production of almost all PFAS chemicals—the first time the company had been forced by a government to stop making PFAS.

Last year details of a secret deal came out. In 2018, 3M struck a confidential agreement allowing the most toxic soil from the Oosterweel project to be dumped on its site, with a plan to create a toxic dirt wall of mind-boggling proportions: almost a mile long, 21 feet high, and at least 82 feet wide.

“The whole thing is crazy,” says Thomas Goorden, an activist who played a key role in revealing 3M’s contamination. “Essentially the government decided to suppress the whole PFOS story here in order to build a tunnel.” With Goorden’s help, citizens groups and nongovernmental organizations mounted legal challenges that have halted the construction of the tunnel and the toxic wall of dirt, at least for now.

Thomas Goorden
Activist Thomas Goorden first brought the contamination to public attention. Photographer: Sabine Rovers for Bloomberg Businessweek
Thomas Goorden walking

The company has denied that PFOS and other PFAS chemicals cause harm to human health at the levels detected in the environment, arguing that studies have produced conflicting results. Nevertheless, 3M’s costs are spiraling. In March it announced it would spend an additional €150 million to clean up soil in the red zone where D’Hollander lives and a surrounding area known as the orange zone, bringing the total amount for PFAS remediation measures in Belgium to €275 million, including a new water treatment system. Rebecca Teeters, 3M’s senior vice president for PFAS stewardship, says the costs are likely to grow. “We’re going to take it back to the state that it was before we had to come in,” she says.

“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.

Building site of Oosterweel tunnel
Construction at the site of the western end of the proposed tunnel. Photographer: Linus Kropp for Bloomberg Businessweek

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.

Map of the Scheldt river, running through France and Belgium

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.

Contaminated Bloodstream

A 2021 study found unsafe levels of PFOS, a chemical 3M used to make, in the blood of people living within 3 kilometers of the company’s plant

59% of samples

Long-term

adverse health

effects are possible

32%

Adverse health

effects cannot be

ruled out

9%

No health

effects

expected

More than

20 micrograms

per liter

Between 5 and

20 micrograms

per liter

Less than 5

micrograms

per liter

59% of samples

Contained more than

20 micrograms

per liter

Long-term adverse

health effects are

possible

32%

Between 5 and

20 micrograms

per liter

Adverse health effects

cannot be ruled out

9%

Less than 5 micrograms

per liter

No health effects

expected

59% of samples

Contained more than 20 micrograms per liter

Long-term adverse health effects are possible

9%

Less than

5 micrograms

per liter

No health

effects

expected

32%

Between 5 and

20 micrograms

per liter

Adverse health

effects cannot

be ruled out

Note: Results from a study of 796 people living within 3 km of 3M’s plant.
Source: VITO NV

In 2000 the company announced it would voluntarily phase out PFOS and another forever chemical, PFOA, globally in what it called a “precautionary measure.” But it maintained that the chemicals were safe and worked on developing new-generation PFAS chemicals that could be used for the same products, including Scotchgard, one of its preeminent brands. A year later, 3M studied the groundwater of its Antwerp factory and found PFOS levels that were off the charts. One sample showed 257,000 micrograms per liter, according to a 3M-commissioned study submitted to the Flemish waste management agency. For context, Minnesota’s current safe limit is 0.015 micrograms per liter.

“I was looking at the numbers and thinking to myself, ‘Did they misplace a decimal point?’”

Goorden, the activist, saw the 3M study in January 2021. “I was looking at the numbers and thinking to myself, ‘Did they misplace a decimal point? There’s a thousand times too much here,’ ” he recalls. “We’re talking about incredible concentrations, thousands of times over the norms.”

After 3M stopped producing PFOS in Belgium in 2002, it replaced the chemical with equivalents it said were safer. (Many scientists disagree.) 3M continued to study the extent of the contamination. In 2006 the company hired a consulting firm called Arcadis NV, which found PFOS levels in the groundwater of as much as 82,800 micrograms per liter. A 655-page report by Arcadis, seen by Bloomberg Businessweek, stated that the contamination had spread via groundwater and possibly by air to a neighboring nature reserve and a nearby creek. In 2008, Arcadis drew up a groundwater remediation plan, but the waste management agency decided no soil sanitation was needed. By 2015 the agency said no additional remediation was required.

That would turn out to be a terrible mistake. In 2016, Lantis, the company in charge of the ring road project, tested the soil. In one area near 3M’s factory, it measured 1,232 micrograms of PFOS per kilogram of dry soil. Flanders has never had laws on its books limiting PFAS, but officials knew that one of the norms being used in the neighboring Netherlands was 8 micrograms per kilo of dry soil, according to minutes from a 2016 meeting on the project.

Neither 3M nor Lantis warned the public about the pollution in the area, even as citizens groups battled over how to complete Antwerp’s ring road. Environmentalists rejected a proposed viaduct connection to the tunnel because, they said, it would lead to deforestation. The government reached an agreement with the activists in 2017 that still included the tunnel plan. Officials didn’t mention anything about digging up heavily contaminated soil.

After more than a decade of fighting, Flemish officials were eager to go ahead with the Oosterweel. They needed 3M’s help. In November 2018, Lantis and 3M signed their secret pact allowing the most dangerous of the toxic dirt (with 70 to 1,000 micrograms of PFOS per kilo) to be dumped on 3M’s site. Lantis argued Flemish regulations allowed it to move the soil without treating it as toxic waste as long as it served a function, in this case a security wall. Lantis estimated it would cost €63 million to move all that soil. 3M’s cost would be €75,000.

“We were astonished,” Hannes Anaf, chairman of the parliamentary committee investigating the PFOS scandal, says of the 2018 agreement. “If you look at what it’s going to cost to resolve the pollution in the broad surroundings of the company, we’re talking billions.”

Environmental groups and residents won a legal challenge late last year that effectively canceled the approvals for transporting the contaminated soil to 3M’s site. Some had already been moved, however, and in March, Lantis came up with a strategy to cover that soil with gravel to prevent PFAS from being, it said, “carried along by the wind.” Soil showing more than 47 micrograms of PFOS per kilo would be kept within the zone where it was excavated and covered with a layer of foil and clay.

Protestors gather in Antwerp harbour.
An anti-contamination protest in Antwerp. Photographer: Nicolas Maeterlinck

The parliamentary committee investigating the scandal issued its report at the end of March and concluded that 3M is to blame for the historical PFAS contamination in the area. It accused the company of not communicating openly about the pollution, but it didn’t hold anyone in government accountable, despite ministers approving the project.

Environmental activists made a final move to halt construction of the Oosterweel, saying the work would make the contamination worse and allow 3M to escape its obligation to clean up the area. In April they won again at the Council of State, Belgium’s top court, which suspended all movement of soil, saying that anything with more than 3 micrograms of PFOS per kilo still posed an unacceptable environmental risk.

What happens now is anyone’s guess. “It’s not the end of the tunnel,” says Annik Dirkx, a Lantis spokesperson. “We are looking at a solution.” Goorden disagrees: “They believe it can indeed still be built, but nobody has told us how they think they can do it legally.”

Teeters, the 3M executive, says she wasn’t involved in the 2018 deal and declined to comment on why it was kept secret. 3M’s focus now, she says, is dealing with the contaminated soil and sharing as much information as possible. “We’re really trying to change that perception of 3M that we’re withholding,” she says. “Our goal is to find a path forward.”

Discovery of the contamination can be traced to a retired pottery designer named Frank Van Houtte, who liked to walk in the nature reserve near his home south of Antwerp. In 2017 he got wind of an elaborate plan by Antwerp province to chop down almost all the trees in the 135-acre reserve and cover much of the area with about 4 million cubic meters of soil from the Oosterweel. That would have created a mountain of soil nearly a hundred feet high. This plan, too, involved foil, with the goal of containing what Lantis said was preexisting pollution in the reserve. “They explained it as if the whole thing would be packed like a piece of chocolate, that it would be safer because nothing can get in or out,” Van Houtte says.

Soil Dump

The Province of Antwerp planned to move roughly 4 million cubic meters of soil from the tunnel-highway project to a nature reserve far south

3M

Belgium

Antwerp

BELGIUM

Antwerp

BELGIUM

Boom

Kleiputten

Terhagen

3 miles

3 km

3M

Belgium

Antwerp

BELGIUM

Antwerp

Boom

Kleiputten

Terhagen

BELGIUM

3 miles

3 km

Antwerp

BELGIUM

BELGIUM

3M

Belgium

Antwerp

1 mile

Boom

Kleiputten

Terhagen

1 km

Sources: Province of Antwerp; Arcadis

He recounts how authorities promised the plan would protect the ecosystem. “They said they would catch the salamanders in the pond and the bats from the trees to send them somewhere else before they cut the trees down,” he says. “But you cannot catch them all! It’s impossible!”

Van Houtte started asking for details on the soil Lantis was going to dump on the nature reserve. In 2020 he got reports from the Flemish waste agency showing about 40 contaminated areas where the Oosterweel would be built. Needing help to go through the documents, he gave them to Goorden. The activist combed through them and wrote up a report that he handed to Antwerp’s daily De Standaard, which ran a story in April 2021 revealing the PFOS contamination around 3M.

Goorden also advised the municipality of Zwijndrecht to test the soil independently of the Flemish government. In June 2021 the city announced the results, showing that PFOS contamination within half a kilometer of the factory exceeded standards by as much as 26 times. “That’s when we knew we had a major problem,” says Steven Vervaet, a local alderman. The municipality then filed a criminal complaint against 3M. He recalls asking company executives in January 2020 if it was risky to use groundwater for agriculture. “They actually told me there is no human risk and certainly not with concentrations found in the area,” he recalls.

“I wondered how I could ever sell this product again now that Zwijndrecht has become PFOS land, like it’s Chernobyl”

Alongside health anxieties, farmers in the area have lost business. Koen Doggen grows organic vegetables that he sells to consumers through a subscription service. He says tests last summer showed his soil had more than twice the level of PFOS at which the government says sanitization is required. “I considered quitting,” he says. “I didn’t know if I wanted to work on contaminated soil. I breathe it in daily in the summer and wash it off my skin every evening. I wondered how I could ever sell this product again now that Zwijndrecht has become PFOS land, like it’s Chernobyl.”

Blokkersdijk nature preserve
Blokkersdijk nature preserve, a stone’s throw from the 3M plant. Photographer: Linus Kropp for Bloomberg Businessweek

Surprisingly, his vegetables had no detectable PFOS, though they had traces of other PFAS. Many customers stuck by him. Still, organic farming on chemically tainted soil is a hard sell, especially given that more information about the contamination has come out since the end of Doggen’s growing season last fall.

3M has earmarked €5 million to compensate farmers financially damaged by the contamination. In a deal the government negotiated for farmers, the company paid Doggen in May for losses in 2021 and an expected downturn in revenue this year. He declined to disclose how much he received.

Lantis now says the soil that will go to the nature reserve south of Antwerp will come only from the right bank of the Scheldt and will not be contaminated with more than 3 micrograms of PFOS per kilo. “The pollution is most of the time limited to the upper layers,” says Lantis’s Dirkx. “There is absolutely no problem with deeper layers.” Van Houtte and many others remain unconvinced.

Flemish inspectors started cracking down last summer. At the end of August the government ordered 3M to stop discharging new types of PFAS, namely PFBSA and two related substances used to make fabrics stain- and water-resistant, into the Scheldt via wastewater. High concentrations of PFBSA had made it into fish in the estuary of the western side of the Scheldt leading into the North Sea, according to a study paid for by residents of Zwijndrecht late last year. Flounder in the estuary had 24 micrograms of PFOS, seven times above safe limits for people who eat fish once a week.

Contaminated Water

High levels of PFOS have been found in the Scheldt

24 micrograms

per kilogram

of flounder fish in the

Western Scheldt Bath

NETHERLANDS

BELGIUM

3M

Belgium

Antwerp

Antwerp

BELGIUM

3 miles

3 km

24 micrograms

per kilogram

of flounder fish in the

Western Scheldt Bath

NETHERLANDS

BELGIUM

3M

Belgium

Antwerp

Antwerp

BELGIUM

3 miles

3 km

24 micrograms

per kilogram

of flounder fish in the

Western Scheldt Bath

NETHERLANDS

BELGIUM

3M

Belgium

Antwerp

Antwerp

3 miles

BELGIUM

3 km

Note: Under European Food Safety Authority standards, the tolerable intake for PFOS is 3.4 micrograms per kilo for consumers who eat fish once a week.
Source: Professor Jacob de Boer, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

The negative reports kept coming. A study by two state agencies found the air around 3M was polluted with PFOS, saying it wasn’t clear if construction dust or 3M was the culprit. At the end of October the government ordered 3M to shut down production of almost all PFAS chemicals. “In 30-plus years of practicing environmental law, I’ve never seen that happen,” says Esther Berezofsky, a lawyer at the US firm Motley Rice who’s advising the Flemish government in its proceedings against 3M.

The company fought the order and lost. Last autumn, 3M’s chief medical officer, Oyebode Taiwo, flew to Antwerp from the US to defend the company in Parliament. He argued that blood tests showing high PFOS levels weren’t proof the chemical caused the health problems that individuals were experiencing. “It could be due to reverse causation, meaning that it’s not the exposure that is causing the health outcome, but it is the health outcome that is causing the exposure to build up,” he said.

In other words, he argued certain people with specific health conditions are more prone to build up PFAS chemicals in their blood. Scientifically, the idea is dubious. Legally, it’s absurd, says Berezofsky. She points to the “eggshell skull” rule accepted in US law. “If I walk down the street and I hit somebody over the head, a normal person with a normal skull may just feel a bump. Somebody who has a skull made of an eggshell might die,” she says. “I’m still responsible. The fact that they have an eggshell skull does not relieve me of the liability of what I did.”

Recently the government has started testing as many as 40,000 people living within a 5-kilometer radius of the factory in what could be one of the world’s biggest human studies of forever chemicals. Residents of central Antwerp just across the river won’t be included even though some live within five kilometers, but a local citizens group crowdfunded to do its own tests on an additional 30 people, including some in central Antwerp. In May it found half that group had PFAS levels in their blood above the European safety levels.

3M says it expects to restart PFAS production in Belgium later this summer. “Will it ever be to the extent and scale as it was over a year ago? Likely not,” Teeters says. After this story came out, 3M issued a statement saying it had “received approval to begin the process toward restarting its manufacturing operations.” A spokesperson for the Flemish Environment Ministry said it was only a partial restart of a “couple of their processes” but the majority remains closed. Karl Vrancken, the Flemish PFAS commissioner who has been coordinating among agencies to respond to the contamination, says Belgium remains committed to supporting a proposal by a handful of European countries for an EU ban on all PFAS chemicals.