After three consecutive cuts, the Flemish Welfare and Health Agency does not have the resources or the manpower to properly pursue all subjects of concern requiring political attention. This is what Director-General Dirk Diolf said Monday morning at the commission of inquiry into PFOS contamination in the Flemish Parliament. “This is beyond our capabilities, let’s be clear about that.”
The Health and Welfare Agency will visit the commission to investigate PFOS contamination around the chemical company 3M’s site in Zwegendrecht on Monday. Members of Parliament present on Monday morning wanted to know, among other things, why the Welfare and Health Agency was only aware of the potential problems of PFOS contamination in Zwijendrecht at the beginning of June this year.
Director General Dirk DeWolf and team responsible for environmental health Bart Bautmans paint a realistic picture of how the agency should monitor harmful substances.
Three successive Flemish governments have mandated savings, which means the environmental healthcare team within Care and Health must handle 36 percent fewer staff, de Wolfe noted. And over the past two years, these have been used primarily in the fight against the Corona pandemic. Bautmans added that the team that has to deal specifically with risk analysis is currently one and a half full-time equivalents. “If you knew they were mainly occupied with Covid and Legionella, you know we’ve actually been flat in this area for two years.”
DeWulf explained that the main impact of the savings on the Environmental Health team is not a targeted strategic outcome. In order to comply with the imposed staff reduction, the agency has not replaced people who have voluntarily retired or left. It sounded like, “These things culminated in this team.” “The bloodshed was wonderful.” The agency’s chief executive hopes to address the shortage of resources and manpower. “But this is in the hands of politicians.”
There are many worrisome materials out there that require political attention, but this is beyond our capabilities, let’s be clear.
out of necessity
Successive rounds of savings led, among other things, to the abandonment of certain tasks. This is also the case for the Health and Welfare Agency’s methodological advice on the issue of environmental permits for establishments with a “G” section, which means that there is an impact on health. Due to a limited workforce, DeWulf explained, this was eased to standard advice, after which a decision was made in 2015 to stop altogether and move forward with implied consents. “There is now amazement about that, but this is a strategic outcome that we have been forced to work on.”
It also means that the Health and Welfare Agency is unable or insufficiently able to monitor other potential threats. “This committee could have been about BFRs, and I wouldn’t know where they were produced. There are many materials of concern that require political attention, but that’s beyond our capabilities, let’s be clear about that,” emphasized de Wolf. But the general manager also questions whether that should be the intention. “Is it the primary task of the government to go after the chemical industry with a mop? I would venture to say that the industry itself must ensure that there is nothing to be wiped.”
In concrete terms, the CEO of the Health and Welfare Agency is calling for stricter rules in the chemicals sector. “We should require producers to be able to demonstrate chemical safety and no toxic nature to people and the environment before production lines begin. The pharmaceutical industry has to do that, and the chemical industry can follow suit. I don’t really think it’s the 21st century way anymore to wait Potential harm to health before changing course.”
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