For several years, the Dordrecht region has seen its waters polluted by chemicals used in a factory owned by the Chemours company, which manufactures Teflon. A high number of cancer is seen in the area.
Sitting on an armchair, looking exhausted and preoccupied, Saskia Stam apologizes: “I was counting on my husband’s presence to explain our situation, but he is still able to work, so he couldn’t join me.” Saskia, 49, has breast cancer. Her partner was diagnosed with cancer of the lymphatic system last year. The tumor has since spread throughout his body.
In Alblasserdam, their greyish village located about ten kilometers from Dordrecht, in the south-east of the Netherlands, the cases of cancer, numerous and early, would not have been unlucky in life. For decades, these pathologies have burdened the lives of the inhabitants, more than for the rest of the Dutch population. Like other villagers, Saskia points to the water of the Merwede, a river that flows not far from their home.
The factory of the American chemical giant Chemours (ex-Dupont), in Dordrecht, would discharge its chemical discharges into the local tributary, which directly supplies homes with running water. Has the metropolitan area of 118,000 inhabitants been poisoned? For its part, the municipality refuses to believe it. On July 8, she rejected the request of some villagers to conduct toxicological examinations of the water.
Of “nonsense”, was also sweeping Saskia several years ago about pollution. She has changed her mind since having her breast removed and losing her job due to cancer. “I am a medical assistant in the operating room, my medications tire me too much for me to be able to stand all day, she sighs. Finding a job is complicated under these conditions. ”
In a state of extreme weakness, she watches her daughter, Sophie, and their dog, Pip, settled on the sofa in front of her. “I have three children, I am worried about them, they have also drunk this water all their lives. Many of us around here are suffering from cancer. One of my husband’s coworkers had testicular cancer at age 25, and last week a neighbor told me that her kidneys are not working properly. She’s in her fifties, like me. “
Contaminated drinking water
Along the course of the Merwede, it’s impossible not to see the Chemours factory and its countless pipes mingling with gray and brown buildings, like an anthill where men dressed in blue overalls are busy. The factory in the Netherlands is the largest in Europe for the production of Teflon (non-stick material used in frying pans) and employs 500 people on site.
For Jacob de Boer, toxicologist at the University of Amsterdam, there is no doubt: “The water is polluted by the Chemours factory!” It is based on numerous toxicological analyzes carried out by the university but also by the National Institute of Public Health and the Environment (RIVM). For decades, the plant has released primarily two chemicals into water, air and nature: C8 and GenX, both PFASs – per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances.
PFAS are a family of several thousand chemicals used, among other things, for the production of textiles or kitchen materials, such as Teflon. The C8 and GenX are already at the origin of another scandal, which erupted in 2016, in West Virginia, in the United States. These dangerous substances have poisoned livestock, workers and residents of the town of Parkersburg, neighboring a Dupont factory. Facts that inspired le film Dark Waters, released in February, which relates Robert Bilott’s story, a lawyer hired to denounce this pollution.
“The C8 issued in Dordrecht has been found everywhere in the environment. When it was banned, they replaced it with another polluting substance, GenX, also emitted in the air and in the earth ”, explains Arjan Winterson, researcher at RIVM, who coordinates research on PFAS in soils and groundwater for the Institute. “Right next to the plant is a drinking water company and they have great difficulty getting rid of the GenX, Jacob de Boer corroborates. The product thus ends up in drinking water and comes out directly from the taps. It is abnormal to find it in running water, even in small quantities. “
“GenX attacks the liver and kidneys”
The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) confirms the health risks. “GenX is very persistent and particularly in water. Our studies show its dangers to health, explains Peter Simpson, a scientific officer at ECHA. It mainly attacks the liver and kidneys, but the full effects are not yet known. “
If the waters of many villages around Dordrecht are contaminated, this can be explained by the topography of the Netherlands. Dikes, bridges, canals, artificial lakes, everything converges towards the water. When the plant produces emissions, pollution from this river spreads throughout the region’s waterways.
Rudd Lammers, member of the independent party from Papendrecht, a village of 32,000 inhabitants, arrives breathless on the bank opposite the factory. The time to observe the gray smoke escaping from Chemours, he comes to his senses. “I suggested that the municipality take care of the costs so that the people of the surrounding villages can receive blood tests, relates the politician at the edge of the choppy stream. The majority of the municipal council refused, saying that it was too expensive and futile, because the RIVM certifies that all is well. ” Comments confirmed but qualified by Arjan Winterson of the RIVM: “Chemours has seen its emissions permits historically reduced since 2017, but spilled PFAS remains a major concern.” On June 19, an analysis report from the University of Amsterdam indicated that PFAS had not disappeared from the water in Papendrecht.
L’Europe s’en saisit
At the local level, the mobilization to lift the veil on this scandal is slowly being organized. Marco Goudriaan is the perfect example. He is at the origin of a petition called “Stop Gif in de Lek”. “We launched the call for signatures against the use of Gen X just before the Covid-19 pandemic, relate-t-il. We only collected 4,500 signatures, but the anger remains. Every Saturday, a few residents have been demonstrating in front of the factory for forty years. ” Nathalie, co-founder of the petition, swam every day in the stream bordering her house. Like Saskia, she now has breast cancer. She also blames the factory for her illness.
Although since May the Netherlands have been working hand in hand with Germany, Denmark and Sweden to assess a possible European ban on these substances, Chemours still denies that its emissions are – or have been – dangerous. . “Over ten years of data show the safe profile of GenX, assures the company, interviewed by Release. The insignificant rates harvested in the wild pose no risk to people or the environment. “
A change in regulations could occur soon, prompted by the publication of new scientific work from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on PFAS, scheduled for September. They would set common European standards on the dangerousness of these products. At the end of September, the European Commission must also publish its eagerly awaited “strategy for a healthy environment without chemicals”.
“With stricter standards, we could also know where the toxic waste from the plant is going”, emphasizes Jacob de Boer. Since 2018, no one, according to the toxicologist, “Even the government”, does not know where the waste from the factory ends. Surprisingly, GenX waste is subject to strict regulations and represents a real danger if released into the environment.
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