What is wrong with the Western Scheldt and why is it not ‘allowed’ to eat fish?


There is a lot of talk about it on social media: the Western Scheldt. The estuary has been trending on Twitter for a while and that’s not because of the view or the great swimming quality. In this article we explain to you what is going on with the Western Scheldt and PFAS.

below #Westerschelde you will find many tweets from indignant people who mainly point to “the lack of supervision” and the pollution of the water. RIVM recently advised to eat “as little as possible” fish from the Western Scheldt. Various types of fish, crustaceans and shellfish in that water contain harmfully high concentrations of PFAS. RIVM has also calculated how much of it you could eat for various species.

What is PFAS?

We start at the beginning: the Western Scheldt. That is an estuary, a widened river mouth where fresh river water and salt sea water come together, which together form brackish water. It is one of the busiest waterways in the world, because it is an important connection between Antwerp and Vlissingen. But partly because it is so crowded, eating fish from that water is not a good idea.

There is PFAS in the water, and a lot of it. This is a substance that humans make themselves and is hardly biodegradable. The substances can be found in many places due to widespread use and discharges. From a certain exposure they can cause health damage. Certain types of PFAS can impair young children’s immune systems. Exposure above a certain level also increases the risk of cancer, liver damage and high cholesterol. The Western Scheldt contains PFAS, among other things, because chemical group 3M in Zwijndrecht, Belgium, discharged it into the Scheldt for years.

RIVM reports that on average, the Dutch ingest too high concentrations of PFAS through their food and drinking water. The institute noted this in a report last year. Therefore, it is “important to increase PFAS intake as little as possible,” the researchers now write.

Fish (and shellfish) from the Western Scheldt

It is therefore best not to eat fish or shellfish from the Western Scheldt at all, but a certain amount is still ‘okay’. This way you can eat a portion of bone twice a year without exceeding limit values. You see: that’s not much. A few other species that are caught in the Western Scheldt:

  • Sea bass can be eaten one to six times a year;
  • Spiering two to fifteen times;
  • A serving of whiting four to nineteen times a year;
  • A serving of shrimp five to six times;
  • And oysters and mussels up to seven times a year.

The difference between four and nineteen times (whiting) is quite significant, so it’s best to ‘just’ get your fish from the store. Then the chance is smallest that it comes from a polluted area. That is why RIVM focuses this warning specifically on hobby fishermen, who mainly catch fish in the area. We recently tipped you places to pick up oysters, so it’s better to omit the location on the Western Scheldt.

“Since it is plausible that people who get these products from the Western Scheldt are enthusiasts, it is assumed that they will consume large portions,” the researchers continued. So they better watch out for that. There is hardly any commercial fishing on the polluted Western Scheldt. Shrimp fishermen who were active there recently decided to avoid the estuary as a precaution.

RIVM recently published a first study into swimming in the Western Scheldt. The outcome was quite reassuring. PFAS concentrations measured at a site believed to be more polluted than the official swimming sites were not too high. Further investigation will follow at three swimming locations.

Kuipers promises: ministry will no longer interfere with OMT advice

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What is wrong with the Western Scheldt and why is it not ‘allowed’ to eat fish?