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US company 3M agrees to pay for Belgium chemical leak

July 6, 2022

The US multinational will pay hundreds of millions to the government and local communities in Flanders after dangerous chemicals from one of its plants were found to be leaking into the groundwater.

The 3M plant in Belgium's Zwijndrecht, northern Belgium
Nearly 60% of adults and adolescents leaving near the 3M plant in Zwijndrecht are believed to have concentrated levels of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid in their bloodImage: imago images/Belga

Following a years-long pollution row, US-based conglomerate 3M announced on Wednesday that it would pay €571 million ($582 million) to the regional government of Flanders, Belgium, and other local projects. The out-of-court settlement came after the manufacturing and chemical giant repeatedly denied that harmful per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) were leaking into the groundwater from its Zwijndrecht plant near Antwerp.

Flanders' Environment Minister Zuhal Demir said the deal was "the result of an intense process during months in which 3M Belgium took action and financial responsibility towards our community." 

"As a result of this agreement, we will be able to get things done in the best interest of the people of Zwijndrecht, our local farmers and our prosperity and wellbeing in general," she added.

John Banovetz, 3M's Executive Vice President for Environmental Responsibility and Chief Technology Officer, said that the settlement "reflects 3M's ongoing stewardship journey as a responsible manufacturer." He also promised even more "significant actions to reduce PFAS discharges and emissions."

Germany: The PFOA scandal in Altötting

Dangerous pollutants

PFAS are found in products ranging from cars to clothes, electronics, and household goods. They are called "forever" chemicals because they do not significantly degrade when they enter the environment or human bodies. The health risks to environmental PFAS include high cholesterol, diabetes, infertility, and cancer.

In October, Flemish health authorities released a study showing that 59% of adults and adolescents living within three kilometers (two miles) of the 3M plant had concentrated levels of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), one type of PFAS, in their blood. PFOS has been significantly restricted in the EU for more than a decade, and in 2009 the Stockholm Convention on pollutants called for their total elimination.

AFP material contributed to this report.

Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.