Young people living within a 5 km radius of 3M have more PFOS in their blood than peers from general Flanders. We see an association between higher exposure to various PFAS components and disruption of the immune system. In addition, we find effects on hormones, growth and puberty at higher PFAS levels in the body. These findings are in line with the scientific literature that has previously shown that PFAS can be immune-disruptive and endocrine-disrupting.

Consumption of eggs from own chickens is a major source of PFOS. PFAS can also enter the body through locally grown vegetables, fruits and nuts. These results confirm the importance of applying the no regret measures previously promulgated by the Flemish government. This study was carried out by VITO, UAntwerp, Uhasselt, VUB and the PIH and was commissioned by the Flemish government.

What was studied?

This youth survey is one of the studies commissioned by the Flemish government in response to the PFAS crisis. 303 young people between 12 and 17 years old had their blood tested for a range of PFAS compounds and various health measurements were taken. Environmental samples including house dust, vegetables from the vegetable garden, chicken eggs, soil and rainwater were also analysed in some of the young people.

"Young people are an important target group for this type of study because they provide a good picture of recent environmental exposure. They are not yet exposed through occupational exposures and usually spend much of their time in their own residential environment. Moreover, the health measurements we perform are often early health signals, which in this young age group still offer opportunities to prevent disease in the future" says Ann Colles of VITO (coordinator of the study).

Mainly PFOS exposure

PFAS is the collective name for all poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, most commonly known PFAS are PFOS and PFOA.

Compared with young people from general Flanders who were surveyed in 2017-2018, young people from the 3M region have mainly more PFOS in the blood. We can test the values of PFOS and PFOA in blood against international guideline values. Only 1 in 4 young people in the 3M region has a value of PFOS in blood that is safe for health. For PFOA, we see a safe value in 9 out of 10 participants.

A geographical analysis shows mostly higher values southwest and northwest of 3M. Apart from Zwijndrecht, we also see higher readings in particular in Melsele and Kallo (municipalities of Beveren).

Reduced immunity and slower puberty development

PFAS exposure among adolescents is clearly associated with several health markers. Most of these do not yet involve disease or health damage, but rather early biological changes that are still reversible.

Most striking are the consistent observations suggesting decreased immunity with higher PFAS exposure. Higher PFAS levels in blood are associated with a lower number of immune cells and immune substances in the body and a higher risk of infections. These results indicate suppression of the immune system and confirm knowledge from the literature that PFAS are immune-disruptive.

A second striking finding is the association between higher PFAS levels and alteration in the levels of hormones, a delay in growth and delay in puberty. This also confirms the endocrine-disrupting properties of PFAS. However, this does not mean that there would be any irregularity or abnormality in adulthood. However, it is appropriate to continue monitoring this concern in larger participant groups.

Chicken eggs, vegetables and house dust

This study again shows that locally grown chicken eggs often contain high concentrations of PFOS. This was not the case for home-grown vegetables, fruits and nuts, but these did contain other PFAS. This is partly due to how the different PFAS behave in humans and the environment. Our study shows that house dust is a less important source of PFAS for young people than food.

Our findings confirm the importance of applying the no regret measures previously promulgated by the Flemish government.

Importance of a well-supported immune system

Obviously, it is not the intention to pass the solution to the problem on to individual citizens, but residents themselves can take action to protect themselves. This can be done with a healthy lifestyle: no smoking, healthy eating, adequate exercise, sufficient sleep. Vaccinations can also provide additional immunity support.

Of course, structural measures are very important, such as addressing the source, regulating production, sanitising the environment and further health monitoring. Policymakers can use the conclusions of the current study to work out the necessary policy measures.

Large-scale blood test for all ages

Earlier, the Flemish government announced that all residents within a 5 km radius of 3M can have a blood sample tested for the presence of PFAS free of charge. Residents can apply until 1 June 2023. For the scientific study, a large number of participants is important. After all, sufficient numbers allow more robust statements to be made about possible links to exposure sources and health risks.

You can register here.

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