"PFOS is omnipresent in our natural  environment in Flanders": how damaging is this for our health?

Analysis of dozens of water samples across Flanders has revealed that levels for the toxic chemical PFOS are being exceeded up to 110 times. "Everywhere we search for it, we find it", says Katrien Smet of the Flemish Environment Agency VMM. It is not a good idea to go swimming in our rivers or to consume fish that may have caught yourself. While there is no big direct threat to public health, we need to bear this in mind, experts underline. 

The VMM analysed 172 samples at 40 different locations across Flanders over the past years, both water samples and samples from fish. The VRT's current affairs programme 'Pano' got hold of the results and these are alarming: PFOS levels were exceeded in 153 samples compared to 19 where this was not the case. 

The samples were taken from surface water in our rivers, canals and ditches (both salty water and sweet water). The highest figures were seen in the River Scheldt in Antwerp with levels up to 110 times above the limit. In all, levels were exceeded in 105 of the 109 water samples and in three quarters of the samples taken from fish. In one case, in the Melsterbeek in Herk-de-Stad, PFOS levels local fish were 11 times above the maximum limit. 

Watch the map with the measuring results below:

Tap water and surface water

We reported earlier that PFAS levels for tap water remained below the European alert level in Flanders. This is because the drinking water is mostly taken from groundwater which is situated relatively deep under the ground. It is being filtered and treated before consumption. PFAS is the larger family of toxic chemicals of which PFOS is just one. They are dubbed 'forever chemicals' because they hardly degrade in a natural environment, or not at all. 

Avoid swimming or eating fish at polluted places

"Everywhere we search for PFOS, we find it", says Katrien Smet of the VMM. "It is omnipresent in our Flemish waterways, and in most cases levels are being exceeded. The directive we are using is 0.65 nanograms per litre, which is very low. But it's a threshold we apply for the quality of our environment and our ecological system." 

Our rivers not only have too much PFOS, nitrates are also a major problem. "We have a lot of work ahead", says Katrien Smet. Eating fish caught in Flemish rivers is not a good idea, and nor is swimming, she adds - in most cases, this is forbidden anyway in Flanders, but there are swimming spots in smaller rivers in various places. 

How damaging is it for our health?

"Eating one fish won't kill you, as the safety level is being determined using a factor 10 or even 100", says Jacob de Boer, a Toxicology professor at the university of Amsterdam. But this is different when you are being exposed to it various times, for example when you often eat fish or when you often go swimming close to a heavily polluted spot like in Zwijndrecht, he adds. "In Zwijndrecht, we have a real problem. I wouldn't let my children go swimming in the area. And the advice not to consume vegetables from your own garden, is justified." 

One time won't kill you, but the problem starts when your are exposed to it various times

This is the main problem with PFAS: since this family of toxic chemicals is omnipresent, it is almost impossible to limit our exposure to just one or two occasions. 

Nikolas Van Larebeke; a professor at the Ghent University who does research on cancer, told the VRT "of course we should be worried. Each dose of PFAS, small as it may be, is damaging. Compare it to smoking. The effect of one cigarette can almost not be measured. But smokers don't stick to one cigarette." 

Of course we should be worried

About PFAS and PFOS

The family of PFAS substances has been linked to kidney cancer and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol levels and a low immune response in our body. However, scientists are learning each day about the exact impact of certain levels and the health problems resulting from it. 

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