The amount of heavy metals in the blood and urine of residents of Dessel, Mol and Retie has declined. This is what emerges from the latest results of the health study 3xG, which examines the exposure to environmental pollutants in 300 babies and their mothers in the three municipalities. The study was commissioned by NIRAS and the partnerships STORA (Dessel) and MONA (Mol).

The former industrial activity in the Noorderkempen has left its mark in the region, as shown by the results in the health study 3xG. These previous measurements showed that the 3xG participants had more cadmium in their blood than the average Fleming, and also the arsenic content was higher. “The increased concentration of heavy metals is not completely gone, but the new results show – just as in Flanders – a downward trend”, said Greet Schoeters of VITO.

Impact of environment and lifestyle

From the measurement results, the researchers found that the concentration of heavy metals is also linked to the environment and living habits. Using questionnaires, they approached participants to see how and via what way they come into contact with heavy metals. Greet Schoeters: “Arsenic occurs naturally in the soil and can enter in groundwater and well water. Eating fish is another factor that can influence the arsenic content. On the other hand, women who worked in the metal processing industry had higher nickel content.

Birth weight

Besides heavy metals, 3xG also studied the allergies, fertility and birth weight. “These do not differ from the Flemish average, said Greet Schoeters. “The average birth weight of the 3xG babies was 3.4 kg, the same as in the biomonitoring study that was recently carried out across Flanders. Stress during pregnancy has the largest influence on birth weight. Babies of mothers who had stress during the second half of the pregnancy weighed 480 grams less than babies of mothers who usually had no stress.”

Best monitored region

All these and other results are presented in the interim report on the first birth cohort of the 3xG study published today. Thanks to the 3xG study, which also monitors the morbidity and mortality rates in the region, the surrounding area of Mol-Dessel is one of the best monitored regions throughout Flanders. The study does not only provide insight in the health, but also in the lifestyle of the participants. Gradually, these data can be used to create health profiles of the inhabitants. The 3xG study runs until 2030. In the coming years, the research will also focus on issues such as air pollution. With the results, the research team can formulate recommendations to improve the health of the inhabitants in the region or for example to launch specific prevention campaigns.

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Health monitoring as a local requirement

The study is carried out by the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO), the University of Antwerp (UA) and the Provincial Institute for Hygiene (PIH) commissioned by NIRAS. It fits into the framework of the construction of the surface repository installation for low and intermediate active short-lived waste that NIRAS is preparing in Dessel in collaboration with local partners STORA (Dessel) and MONA (Mol). Continuous health monitoring is one of the requirements of the local communities to accept this installation on their territory. In 2010, 3xG was launched  as a feasibility study to find out how the health of an entire region can be monitored. At present, 300 mothers and their babies from Dessel, Mol and Retie are taking part in the study; they are the first birth cohort. Every ten years the research will be expanded with a new cohort of 300 new participants.

Personal health screening

Special about the 3xG study is human biomonitoring. With this technique, researchers are looking for special biomarkers in blood and urine samples, searching for contaminants in the body.

Thus, one can determine whether there is a connection with polluting substances that are present in the region, and whether the contents in the body cause harmful effects. The individual analysis per participant will also subsequently be processed at the group level. Consequently, pronouncements can be made that are of interest to all inhabitants in the region. A second part of the study compares the official figures on illnesses and deaths in the municipalities of Dessel, Mol and Retie with the rest of the country.


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