PFAS in Belgium – From awareness to accountability and remediation

05 Feb 2024

What do nonstick frying pans, dental floss, a phone touchscreen, pizza boxes, fire-fighting foam and the town of Zwijndrecht have in common? These seemingly unrelated items all share an unexpected link – the alarming issue of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances).

PFAS are a family of chemicals known for their persistent nature and potential to cause harm. While the focus has often been on highlighting the problems, it is essential to explore constructive solutions, especially for industries that use PFAS in their operations. This newsflash is an introduction to the complex landscape of PFAS in Belgium, covering the nature of PFAS, the current (legislative) situation in the EU and Belgium, some worrisome cases of pollution and the future of PFAS.

PFAS in industry 

PFAS, or ‘forever chemicals’ are prized for their enduring resistance to heat, water and oil, making them crucial in industries such as firefighting where they're prevalent in fire-fighting foams. However, the strong carbon-fluorine bond, responsible for PFAS resilience, is also a concern. Despite some partial degradation in complex molecules, these bondsultimately form persistent substances like PFOA and PFOS. This lack of degradation poses environmental threats and health concerns, as research links PFAS exposure to hormone imbalances, low birth weights, immune system issues in children and a potential increased risk of cancer following prolonged exposure.

PFAS in the EU

EU regulation on PFAS can be found in several instruments and is still taking shape, with several proposals still on the table. PFOS, which belongs to the broader PFAS family, has been restricted in the EU for more than 10 years already, under the EU’s Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Regulation. A number of PFAS are also on the REACH Candidate List of substances of very high concern.

The Drinking Water Directive which was amended in 2020, established a double threshold limit for PFAS concentrations in water which are to be transposed by Member States by 12 January 2026: (i) ‘Sum of PFAS’: 0.1 µg/l for a group of 20 of the most common PFAS and (ii) ‘PFAS Total’: 0.5 µg/l meaning the totality of polyfluoroalkyl substances (including the less common ones).

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has launched a PFAS Restriction Proposal, which aims to regulate all PFAS materials in order to prevent industries from transitioning to equally harmful alternatives. The proposal includes a wide-use restriction (i.e. the manufacture, sale and use of PFAS), effective as early as 2026. The adoption of this proposal is still ongoing.

PFAS in Belgium

Zwijndrecht – a notorious case

The PFAS contamination of Zwijndrecht is well-known and stems from historical pollution linked to the 3M factory, a major PFAS producer in Europe. Despite ceasing some PFAS production in 2002, the newer PFAS compounds produced by 3M were unexpectedly more mobile and dispersed rapidly into the environment. Studies indicate elevated levels of PFAS in Zwijndrecht’s population, which has prompted concerns about health implications and calls for stricter regulations.

Recently, 3M appealed to the Council of State to overturn the Flemish government’s site decision ‘PFAS 3M – Zwijndrecht’ which requires the company to remediate polluted areas. This move contradicts a previous agreement where 3M committed 571 million euros to remediation. Flemish Minister Zuhal Demir asserts that 3M must fulfil its cleanup obligations, expressing confidence in the enforcement of the agreed terms. 

Recent developments in Wallonia and Brussels

In Wallonia and Brussels, an investigative report by RTBF journalists recently challenged the initial perception that PFAS contamination was confined to Flanders. Contrary to initial data suggesting limited contamination in the rest of Belgium, an eight-month inquiry revealed over 335 PFAS-contaminated sites in Wallonia and Brussels. Among these, the inquiry identified 36 clusters with highly contaminated ‘hotspots’ which surpass the 100 ng/l guideline for drinking water. This has obviously raised health concerns. The journalists advocate for stricter regional standards, which echoe the proactive measures observed in Flanders.

The legislative response to the crisis

Following the discovery of contamination in Flanders, initiatives such as the Flemish PFAS Action Plan of July 2023 were launched to deal with both past contamination and the reduction of future risks.

Emission standards in Flanders were optimised for greater efficiency. They now emphasise the concentration in terms of the volume of emissions and include the following key standards:

  • For water contamination, the changes are in line with the EU’s Drinking Water Directive, which establishes a standard of 100 ng/l for the 20 most common PFAS (0.1 µg). To provide some context, the United States has set its standard to 4 ng/l, while Denmark has a stricter standard of 2 ng/l. 

  • For soil contamination, Flanders adheres to the guideline values which include 3 μg/kg for PFOS, 3 μg/kg for PFOA, and 8 μg/kg for the sum of PFAS. In terms of air quality, specific concentrations in airborne particles have been established for the various distinct PFAS, ranging from 0.4 ng/m³ to 2.2 ng/m³. 

  • The reporting limit for most PFAS in groundwater is set to 10 ng/l (or 50 ng/l in certain instances). When returning drainage water to the ground, the reporting limit for groundwater serves as the quality requirement unless specified otherwise in the permit. Existing installations have until March 2024 to implement measures aimed at keeping PFAS concentrations below reporting limits when returning drainage water to the ground. Alternatively, adjustments can be made to the project permit to ensure compliance with the regulations.

Since 2022, Flemish permit requirements have also been tightened for PFAS. An environmental permit is required for operations or activities which use PFAS materials when the concentration of PFAS in the industrial wastewater on site exceeds 20 ng/l (or 50 ng/l in some instances). The companies that discharged below 100 ng/l, and thus previously did not require a permit, have been granted a transition period to make the necessary adjustments. For existing discharges which surpass 20 ng/l (or 50 ng/l), measures must be implemented before March 2024 to ensure compliance with these limits. Alternatively, PFAS must be incorporated into the permit. In the case of new discharges which exceed these limits, companies must immediately request a discharge standard. Companies which already hold a permit for PFAS are exempt from taking additional action.

No binding legislation or guidelines exist in Wallonia and Brussels yet.

Toward a PFAS-Free Future?

As the industry adapts to the new Flemish standards, efforts to find PFAS alternatives are ongoing. Identifying all the applications of PFAS is not easy, and downstream users may unknowingly be incorporating PFAS into their products due to complex supply chains. Furthermore, the lack of labelling requirements complicates consumer decisions. 

In the context of the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the EU, Flanders is organising an international forum to address PFAS-related issues and to promote a PFAS-free future. This forum, scheduled for early February, will serve as a platform for global experts to come together and exchange knowledge, develop insights, and collaborate on various actions (such as the phasing out of PFAS, pollution monitoring, soil remediation, public health protection and the improvement of risk communication).

In order to effectively address environmental concerns, we need to comprehensively re-evaluate consumption patterns and production chains. The focus should extend beyond substitution to a broader perspective, in which industry stakeholders and consumers are urged to reassess and reshape consumption patterns and habits.

If you need legal guidance on a PFAS-related subject, don’t hesitate to contact us. We’re here to provide support and to help you address any PFAS-related legal issues.

Els Empereur, Karel Veuchelen, Imane El Arnouki

Contact us

Els Empereur

Lawyer - Director, PwC Legal BV/SRL

+32 494 57 15 50


Karel Veuchelen

Lawyer - Managing Associate, PwC Legal BV/SRL

+32 479 21 60 66


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