The factory has been there since the 1960s. Why are all these lawsuits only coming up now?

“The harmful effects of PFAS have received more attention recently, although it’s not like we were completely unaware of them before. Since 2015, there have been various journalistic reports and court cases, and several studies into PFAS levels in vegetable gardens, soil and water. Also, the Dutch Safety Board published a report on the company this year, and the EU has on several occasions implemented significant downward adjustments of the maximum concentrations in response to different studies.”

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, often referred to using the abbreviation PFAS, are a group of around ten thousand different substances that have been used in all kinds of clothing, packaging, non-stick pans, weapons and firefighting foam since the 1960s because of their water-repellent qualities. A factory that uses PFAS variants has been active in Dordrecht since the 1960s. It belonged to DuPont until 2015, when parts of it were acquired by Chemours and Dow Chemical.

For a long time, Chemours (and DuPont before it) have maintained that PFAS are perfectly safe. When did people start to realise that this might not be the case?

“In 1998, a farmer in the United States named Wilbur Tennant realised that many of his cows were dying. The cows had become sick by drinking surface water that turned out to be heavily contaminated with PFOA, one of the most well-known PFAS variants used by the nearby DuPont factory. The US federal supervisory authority already investigated the matter back then, but it took some time for that knowledge to reach us in the Netherlands. Stricter regulations for PFOA were not adopted in the Netherlands until 2012. The 2019 film Dark Waters takes a closer look at this case, which also refocused attention on this issue in the area in Dordrecht where the factory is located. A complicating factor is that PFAS concern around ten thousand different substances, rather than just one. We know the risks associated with some of these substances, but not all.”

What do we know about the health risks?

“It isn’t easy to prove the causal link with health effects due to the large number of different substances, and because it’s difficult to determine without a doubt that such a link exists. Studies have linked PFAS to cancer, liver and thyroid damage, fertility problems, an impact on unborn children and immunocompromisation. This includes studies by Danish physician and environmental epidemiologist Philippe Grandjean.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

So thanks to Mr Tennant, we have known since 1998 that PFAS are dangerous. Was this also when the manufacturers found out, or had they covered up this information?

“We know that DuPont and 3M – the biggest PFOA manufacturers – had been dealing with internal concerns since the 1960s, although they were mainly concerned about their own personnel. In an internal memo from 1984, which was made public during an American court case, Dupont wrote that they had been responsible for exposure in the factory, through their clients and the environment, for over thirty years. Whether similar information was also covered up in the Netherlands is hard for me to say, but the court has determined that, between 1984 and 1998, the companies definitely had a better understanding than the government did. Together with my colleagues Yogi Hendlin, Sammie Verbeek and Abby Onencan, I’ve been looking into who knew what in the Dordrecht case, and when they first learned about it. We don’t know exactly to what extent the industry shared its concerns with the supervisory authorities. Our research will also take the national and European context of regulations and supervision into account.”

25 years later, the factory in Dordrecht is still dumping PFAS into the surface water. Should the government not have intervened at some point?

“You might well refer to part of this story as state-facilitated corporate crime. This is a somewhat complicated concept, but I don’t necessarily mean this should fall under criminal law. The term ‘crime’ can also be used to refer to damage we should have been able to predict. What was the government’s role with regard to licences and supervision? Was the pollution partially permitted? A considerable portion of the pollution was covered by Chemours’ licence, with concentrations far above the current limit values.

“Supervision has long been fragmented, in the Netherlands as well as elsewhere. In the 1960s, municipal authorities were responsible for this. Additionally, there were separate supervisory authorities for surface water, groundwater, air and soil at the local, regional and national levels. Nowadays, responsibility for this lies with the provincial authority, which outsources its supervisory role to the DCMR Environmental Protection Agency, since it has more expertise in this area.”

Could the government not have changed the licence?

“For a long time, the underlying principle behind a licence was that you were allowed to build a factory anywhere, as long as it didn’t result in too much pollution. It wasn’t: you can build a factory here, but you can’t pollute the environment. Public authorities would like to enforce the latter, but this isn’t as simple as it might seem. The province of South Holland, for example, has been trying to tighten up Chemours’ licence for some time, but the court recently ruled against it. The province wanted to change the licence so substances that might be of very high concern would fall under the same regulations as substances proven to be of very high concern, but the court didn’t agree with this.

“Incidentally, Chemours is actually dumping less than it used to – 99% less, according to its own figures. However, the problem with PFAS is that they don’t degrade naturally, so they will simply continue to accumulate. Moreover, they’re spread into the environment by air as well as by water, giving them another access route into groundwater and therefore into our drinking water.”

Can water companies remove PFAS from the water using filters?

“This isn’t easy, but there are certain complicated technologies that can be used. This does entail significant costs, however. Besides, it doesn’t actually solve the problem – what are you supposed to do with a filter full of PFAS? In practice, it will probably be taken to a company in Belgium, Indaver, which was recently in the news because of its impact on the PFAS levels in the Western Scheldt estuary.”

As a layperson, I struggle to understand how the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) can say that these substances are a threat to public health, but you can still bathe safely in surface water that is full of PFAS. How does that make any sense?

“I agree that this is confusing, and I understand why you’d struggle with this. This confusion is partly the result of rapid developments in what we know about PFAS. For an advisory body like RIVM, it can be difficult to be always in line with all of these changing insights. In addition, there are simply a lot of ongoing studies: into vegetable gardens, soil and bathing water. The risk depends on the circumstances as well. Eating produce from vegetable gardens within one kilometre of the factory is no longer recommended. For vegetable gardens that are further away, RIVM recommends alternating between produce from the vegetable garden and shop-bought produce to avoid ingesting too many PFAS. People should also avoid sprinkling their vegetables with ditch water. There’s a real lack of clarity. What about eggs from your chicken coop, for example? This is also currently under investigation.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

At least they do not stick to the pan.

“That’s another issue. What are we supposed to do with our pans? Most people now realise that a Teflon coating is not ideal, but some water-proof coats also contain PFAS. What should they do with those? All forms of exposure are different, and they sometimes occur in combination. It can be difficult to keep track. Moreover, some occupational groups run – or ran – a higher risk. Members of the fire service are an example of this, since their clothing and the foam they use contain PFAS. Studies were also conducted into the weapons used by the army, since Teflon (which also belongs to the group of PFAS, ed.) was used to make them fire-retardant and fire-resistant. Teflon is very effective in this regard.”

You have just named quite a few different applications, and some of them seem pretty important. Can our society still function without these substances?

“A lot of companies are looking for alternatives. Still, those alternatives often require us to sacrifice some level of comfort. A coat can be made water-proof without the use of PFAS by using a dense weave and covering it with beeswax, but this does make the coat heavier.”

What about non-stick coatings in pans?

“Not all non-stick coatings use PFAS – there are also ceramic options. While it’s not entirely clear how a scratch in the Teflon coating will affect your health, scientists advise caution. Those heavy cast-iron pans are another great alternative – I use one myself.”

Could we not just prohibit the use of these substances?

“You need to be careful not to end up in a game of ‘chemical whack-a-mole’, as my colleague calls it. Once you prohibit one of these substances, manufacturers will simply switch to a different substance, for which research on the potential dangers is still lacking. After all, rather than a single substance, we’re dealing with ten thousand variants, not all of which are equally poisonous. That’s why the Netherlands and several other European countries submitted a proposal earlier this year to prohibit this entire group of chemicals, but this proposal is currently still in the consultation stage. A lot of lobbying takes place in the European Union. If the proposal ends up being accepted, it will likely not enter into force until 2026-2027.”

What are the chances that we can actually have Chemours pay the cost of decontaminating our environment?

“Two weeks ago, four municipalities won their case when they submitted this question to the court. In an interim judgment, the court declared that DuPont de Nemours (the legal predecessor of Chemours) had acted unlawfully between 1984 and 1998. After all, it had insufficiently informed the licensing authority, supervisory authorities and the municipalities about the risks relating to PFOA that were known to it. The court ruled that the company was responsible for the pollution, even if it did have a licence. For the period from 1998 to 2012, both parties now have the opportunity to submit further documents and arguments, on which the court will deliver a judgment in 2024.”

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