New results health study Dessel-Mol-Retie

Anyone who uses well water to cook, may be exposed to toxic arsenic, recent results of the 3xG health study in Dessel, Mol and Retie show. The study is carried out with 301 mothers and their baby, commissioned by NIRAS and the partnerships STORA (Dessel) and MONA (Mol). Fourteen Kempen municipalities are now launching a campaign in which residents are asked to check whether it is time to have their well water analysed. 

In 2013, when the researchers of the 3xG study analysed the urine of the first 150 participating mothers on heavy metals, they found toxic arsenic. Nathalie Lambrechts, VITO: “Arsenic is naturally present in the Kempen soil. We therefore quickly linked the use of well water, which is groundwater extracted from a well. This water is susceptible to contamination by bacteria and/or chemicals such as heavy metals and pesticides.”

Arsenic problem?

In order to emphasize the connection between well water and arsenic, the 3xG researchers sent an additional questionnaire. This revealed that those families with a water well – 51 percent of the respondents – use 21  percent well water to cook.  And that is not always without risk. The urine of mothers in those families contain significant higher levels of arsenic. Also in the urine of the 3xG participants that use well water for their vegetable garden, the researchers detected more arsenic. 

Does the Kempen have an arsenic problem? “No, the values are similar to what was previously measured in Flanders and in surrounding countries like France”, says Nathalie Lambrechts. Nevertheless, the results should get the necessary attention. “Arsenic is a carcinogen. The dose in the body must therefore be as low as possible.” 

DNA damage and impact on growth

The scientists also found a link between arsenic and DNA damage in the mothers. “The more arsenic we detected in the urine, the higher the DNA damage. But our DNA often recovers itself without affecting health.” Even more remarkable is the relationship between arsenic and the baby’s growth. Participants with higher levels of arsenic in their urine often gave birth to babies who were smaller than expected.”

Campaign well water use

Can we no longer use well water? It is no problem if you use the water to clean your car, flush the toilet or water the lawn. But if you are drinking well water or if you use it to cook, do the dishes or to shower, an annual test is recommended. Not everyone is aware of that. Nathalie Lambrechts: “117 families we have questioned said to have a well. But only 22 percent of them have their water well tested. Two thirds of those who had carried out an analysis, do not know whether their well water was tested for arsenic.”

That is why Logo Kempen, together with fourteen Kempen municipalities, is launching a large-scale campaign with the slogan: “Do not bury your head in the sand … do you know what type of groundwater comes from your well?” From 25th April until 30th June 2017, inhabitants of Dessel, Mol, Retie and 11 other Kempen municipalities can use the online tool By answering a few simple questions, the people in the Kempen can see whether it is necessary to have their well water tested for the things they are using it for. Those who have filled in the questionnaire will get personal advice and can directly sign up for a well water analysis. 

More information

Consult the report on
Contact Nathalie Lambrechts (VITO) for info on the results:, 014 33 51 16
Contact Ruth Lambrechts (Logo Kempen vzw) about the campaign:, 014 44 08 34
Contact Evelyn Hooft (NIRAS) for info on the 3xG study: 0475 60 25 04

Background information

Health monitoring as a local condition

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 disposal installation for low and intermediate level 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

The technique applied in the 3xG study is human biomonitoring. With this method, researchers are looking at biomarkers in blood and urine samples, representing contaminants and health effects 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 analyses of all 300 participants are interpreted at group level. Consequently, the resulting findings 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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