In a new episode of Zembla, the harmfulness of PFAS chemicals is brought to light. These chemicals, better known as ‘forever chemicals’, are spread worldwide, and can be found, for example, in non-stick coatings of pans. The Zembla episode closely aligns with the research being conducted by Lieselot Bisschop, Professor of Public and Private Interests at Erasmus School of Law, and her colleagues, regarding PFAS contamination and its oversight. The episode focuses on the case of the originally American chemical company DuPont, which also established itself in Dordrecht in the 1960s. How harmful are the forever chemicals, and how is it possible that until recently, there seemed to be a forever silence surrounding PFAS?
"PFAS contamination is an industrial societal harm that originated in the 1930s with the introduction of various consumer products and industrial processes that used these substances," explains Bisschop. "Governments allowed PFAS contamination because they established limits for permitted emissions in soil, water, and air, as well as health and safety standards in the workplace. In other words, governments worldwide helped perpetuate an industrial social harm."
At the core of this "permitted pollution" lies an asymmetry of knowledge: the chemical industry knew decades ago that these substances were harmful. Public outcry over PFAS began as early as 2000 in the United States (evidenced, for example, in the film "Dark Waters"), but attention to PFAS contamination in the Netherlands only started around 2016 and remains a subject of discussion today. Moreover, due to a recent proposal for a PFAS ban, the topic is now high on the European agenda.
Decades-long awareness of PFAS contamination
In the research project "Insights into the History and Contemporary Dynamics of PFAS Eco-toxicity," Bisschop, along with her colleagues Abby Onencan and Sammie Verbeek from Erasmus School of Law and Yogi Hendlin from Erasmus School of Philosophy, focuses on the harmfulness of PFAS chemicals. They examine the public-private interactions, motivations, and circumstances that historically led to the problematic situation of today, as well as how knowledge of this situation can restore and prevent harm in the future. The research on PFAS is part of the Erasmus Initiative "Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity" and combines a case study on DuPont/Chemours Dordrecht based on a historical analysis of documents with interviews, observations, and systematic studies of literature, resulting in a rich and in-depth understanding of the PFAS case. This timeline makes it clear that the harmful effects of certain PFAS and the responsibility of the chemical industry for PFAS contamination were already discussed in internal documents of the chemical industry decades ago.
The episode "The PFAS Cover-Up" aired on Zembla on Thursday evening 15 June. "By exchanging ideas in our research, we were able to learn from each other and assist each other in clarifying the timeline of this case," Bisschop says about the collaboration with Zembla's investigative journalists.