Cross-Border Project Exposes Extent of PFAS Contamination in Europe

May 1, 2024
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Inside Story: Cross-Border Project Exposes Extent of PFAS Contamination in Europe

Stéphane Horel's extensive coverage for Le Monde of PFAS contamination in Europe earned her second place for the Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting, Large, in the Society of Environmental Journalists' 22nd Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment.

The judges commended the cross-border project, which involved more than a dozen news partners and generated a massive dataset of samples that uncovered thousands of known contamination sites: "The breadth and detail of research and data journalism undertaken by Le Monde to write 'Revealed: The massive contamination of Europe by PFAS 'forever chemicals’' is both impressive and leads the reader to direct and disturbing conclusions about the state of forever chemical contamination across the European continent."

SEJournal Online recently interviewed Horel via email. Here is the conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

SEJournal: How did you get your winning story idea?

Stéphane Horel: We were inspired by a transdisciplinary scientific work that mapped PFAS contamination in the U.S.

SEJournal: What was the biggest challenge in reporting the piece and how did you solve that challenge?

Horel: The lack of equivalent geolocation data for the various PFAS presumptive contamination sites in the European Union made it difficult to adapt the U.S. methodology to the letter. We used various tricks to overcome the difficulty, such as locating sites one by one with open source intelligence resources (military sites all over Europe), automatically matching postal addresses shown in trade associations member lists with GPS data (paper mills) or cross-matching industrial activities with the EU register of industrial emissions.

SEJournal: What most surprised you about your findings?

Horel: We were shocked that our map of Europe ended up covered with dots, showing widespread PFAS contamination over the continent.

SEJournal: How did you decide to tell the story and why?

Horel: The Forever Pollution Project was a collaborative, cross-border investigation that involved almost 30 journalists in 12 European countries. The core “product” was an interactive map of PFAS contamination, and then every media partner published story/ies adapted to their readerships and audiences. Stories included the map as embedded content — fully or partially, according to national legal contexts (showing “presumptive contamination sites” was exposing the outlets to high legal risks in the U.K. and Germany, and almost none in France, for example, where the right to information prevails).

SEJournal: Does the issue covered in your story have disproportional impact on people of low income, or people with a particular ethnic or racial background? What efforts, if any, did you make to include perspectives of people who may feel that journalists have left them out of public conversation over the years?


PFAS pollution concerns everyone —

we all have PFAS in our blood,

be it in the U.S. or in Europe.


Horel: PFAS pollution concerns everyone — we all have PFAS in our blood, be it in the U.S. or in Europe. However, industrial pollution hits workers and lower-income neighboring communities first. Some of our 16 media partners have produced reports on frontline communities — see for example the work of our colleagues in Italy.

SEJournal: What would you do differently now, if anything, in reporting or telling the story and why?

Horel: We would definitely include the data journalists much earlier in the process.

SEJournal: What lessons have you learned from your project?

Horel: Journalism can learn a lot (and make better journalism!) by using and adapting scientific methods.

SEJournal: What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar projects, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?


The collective intelligence of

cross-border investigation

and cross-field collaborations,

… can generate powerful knowledge.


Horel: Your creativity is the best tool! The collective intelligence of cross-border investigation and cross-field collaborations, which are ideal playgrounds, can generate powerful knowledge.

SEJournal: Could you characterize the resources that went into producing your prize-winning reporting (estimated costs, i.e., legal, travel or other; or estimated hours spent by the team to produce)? Did you receive any grants or fellowships to support it?

Horel: It took us 10 months to achieve the project. The cross-border coordination was done by Arena for Journalism in Europe. Staff costs were covered by the media themselves and by grants from JournalismFund Europe and IJ4EU for cross-border journalism.

SEJournal: Is there anything else you would like to share about this story or environmental journalism that wasn’t captured above?

Horel: An informal advisory group of seven scientists from three disciplines (social sciences, environmental science, environmental law) participated in this “expert-reviewed journalism” experience. Drawing both on scientific methods and investigative journalism techniques such as open source intelligence and freedom of information requests, the team conducted an investigation that mixes science, cartography, history, economics and politics.

Stéphane Horel is an investigative journalist at Le Monde. Author of several documentaries and books, she specializes in corporate harm, toxic industries, conflict of interest and scientific disinformation. In early 2023, she supervised the European map of PFAS contamination of the "Forever Pollution Project". Her long-term investigation on the European regulation of endocrine disrupters was shortlisted for the Albert Londres Prize (2016) and received the Louise Weiss Prize for European Journalism (2017). Her series of articles on the "Monsanto papers," co-authored with Stéphane Foucart, was awarded the 2018 European Press Prize for Investigation. In past years, she has worked on environmental pollution, pesticides, Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol, and is trying to improve the world at the margin with cross-border investigations.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 18. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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