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BRUSSELS: Belgian authorities on Tuesday warned US conglomerate 3M it may have to end activities at a plant near the city of Antwerp after blood samples of nearby residents showed worrying signs of exposure to pollution.

"The company has two days to prove beyond all doubt that it is not exposing the inhabitants of Zwijndrecht to excess risk through its emissions," said a statement from the environment minister for the Flemish region of Belgium, Zuhal Demir.

"If they cannot prove that, they must immediately cease all production processes that are causing the emissions," the statement said.

The 3M plant in Zwijndrecht makes products from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances ( PFAS), a widely used family of synthetic chemicals that withstand intense heat and can repel water and grease.

They can be found in cars, planes, clothes, leather, household products, electronics, food processing and medical articles. But when they seep into groundwater, surface water and soil, PFAS can pose a toxic health risk and they persist for a very long time. Some PFAS can harm foetus development, some can cause cancer, and some are suspected of disturbing the human endocrine system which handles the body's hormones.

On Tuesday, Flemish health authorities released a study showing that 59 percent of adults and adolescents living within three kilometres (two miles) of the 3M plant had concentrated levels of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), one type of PFAS, in their blood. They risked developing cholesterol problems, diabetes and infertility, the researchers said.

The study said the 796 blood samples were taken after a smaller testing sample over the summer from among the population of around 12,000 in the area showed similarly alarming levels. The results were "especially bad," Demir said, as local concern at the results mounted.

"I feel extremely guilty about making my children eat vegetables from our garden," one resident living 300 metres (yards) from the factory, Dirk Herremans, told AFP. The EU has restricted PFOS for more than a decade, and since 2009 it has been included in the international Stockholm Convention for its use to be eliminated entirely.

3M ceased producing PFOS in 2002, but PFAS are known as "forever" chemicals that barely degrade in the environment, or in bodies. The 3M plant in Belgium was already in authorities' sights from an earlier study that showed high levels of pollution in the soil nearby, taken during work to extend the ring road around Antwerp.

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