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Antwerp’s toxic recycling problem

ANTWERP, Belgium — Recycling can be a dirty business, which is a problem for one of Europe’s oldest ..



ANTWERP, Belgium — Recycling can be a dirty business, which is a problem for one of Europe’s oldest and largest recycling plants.

The Umicore plant in Hoboken, a suburb of Antwerp, gathers electronic waste and spent batteries from all over Europe and takes them apart to extract precious metals such as silver, gold and platinum. Its industrial chimneys loom high over a local neighborhood of duplex houses.

The factory has been here for 130 years, separated from the houses by a battered gray and brick 3-meter wall — but recently people are reporting a surge of health problems. More than 60 children have shown high levels of lead in their blood. One 5-year-old had five times the 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood limit that’s deemed safe by the World Health Organization.

“If we would have known that there’s such a dangerous company nearby, we would have never bought this house,” said Adam Fadol, a resident whose three children all had heightened lead values in their blood.

That’s a problem for the neighborhood, for the mining and refining company that is now Europe’s largest recycler of precious metals, as well as an example of the difficulties posed by the EU’s efforts to boost recycling.

As part of its Green Deal program to become climate-neutral by 2050, the EU wants a dramatic expansion in renewable energy and electric vehicles. That means a massive increase in battery production — which needs the metals extracted by factories like Umicore’s — and a surge in old batteries sent for recycling.

Past problems

It’s difficult to pin down exactly where the lead problem in Hoboken comes from because the factory has been there for decades, but it underlines the difficulty of conducting such industrial operations in populated areas. It also raises questions over the EU’s plans to have more such plants in Europe, instead of the current practice of shipping e-waste off to developing countries where the recycling is done with little regard to safety and environmental standards.

Umicore has been aware of the dangers of lead pollution for decades.

Local children are tested every six months for lead — a heavy metal present in many of the reprocessed materials. Since 1998, the average value of lead in the blood of tested children dropped from over 15 micrograms per deciliter to 3 micrograms in 2019. But during the most recent measurement in June, the figures spiked. Nearly half of the tested children were above the WHO threshold, 20 had more than 10 micrograms and four exceeded 20 micrograms.

The pandemic plays a possible role with children spending much more time at home instead of being at a more distant school.

“The school in the neighborhood was closed years ago to make sure the children would be less exposed, but we only thought about that when the lockdown started,” said Luc Gellens, senior vice president at Umicore and director of the Hoboken site.

In response, Umicore is now proposing to buy the houses of nearby families with young children and to eventually create a “green belt” around the factory. Some 30 families have so far said that they are interested in moving, according to local media.

Fadol is eager to move. His three children, aged between 2 and 7, all have heightened lead levels. “Sometimes my youngest daughter plays outside, she comes home with dark dust on her clothes,” Fadol said in his living room.

But Sandra Van Der Linden said her family was not planning to accept Umicore’s offer and leave the house they’ve lived in for 13 years, even though her grandson has five times the amount of lead deemed safe in his blood. “We enjoy living here and we know all our neighbors,” Van Der Linden said.


Despite the problems in Hoboken, the company stressed that the alternative is worse.

The environmental cost of dumping waste, as well as mining needed to extract new materials, is much higher than recycling, said Marjolein Scheers, a Umicore spokesperson.

The EU’s green energy plans mean that factories such as Umicore’s will only become more common. Approximately


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Madrid region to lift mobility restrictions in 13 areas




Madrid regional health authorities will lift mobility restrictions in 13 areas starting on Monday due to improved coronavirus figures. These 13 basic health zones – which are not districts or neighborhoods but areas served by one or more primary healthcare centers – have experienced drops of over 50% in the number of new cases and a sustained downward trend in the incidence rate.

On the other hand, a new basic health zone is being added to the list of areas where entering and leaving are only allowed for work, school and other essential business. It is a health zone known as Barcelona, located in the town of Móstoles, the Madrid region’s second most populated municipality after the capital itself. The restrictions are being imposed for 14 days beginning on Monday.

The basic healthcare zones where confinement is being lifted are the following:

In the city of Madrid – Entrevías, Pozo del Tío Raimundo, Alcalá de Guadaíra and Numancia (district of Puente de Vallecas), Pavones and Vandel (district of Moratalaz) and Infanta Mercedes (district of Tetuán).

Elsewhere in the Madrid region – San Juan de la Cruz (Pozuelo de Alarcón), Cerro del Aire and Valle de la Oliva (Majadahonda), Colmenar Viejo Norte (Colmenar Viejo) and the entire municipalities of Morata de Tajuña and Villarejo de Salvanés.

In total, there will be 18 basic health zones with mobility restrictions on Monday, down from 30 this Friday (see bottom box for the list). The measures will affect 381,505 people, or 5.7% of the population of the Madrid region. These areas account for 8% of infections.

Curfew and Christmas

Additionally, other measures remain in place such as the midnight-to-6am curfew and the limit of six people on social gatherings, either in public or private settings. There are also limits on attendance and opening hours at bars, restaurants, retail stores, gyms and places of worship.

The Madrid region as a whole will also close its borders between December 4 and 13, coinciding with two holidays that fall within that period – Constitution Day and the feast of the Immaculate Conception – when a lot of travel normally takes place.

As for the Christmas holidays, the regional government is proposing to let up to 10 people come together on December 24, 25 and 31 and on January 1 and 6. It also wants to push the curfew forward to 1.30am on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. The rest of the time, the current six-person limit would remain in place. Madrid authorities may also allow outings for residents of senior homes and centers for people with disabilities who have had a positive PCR test in the previous three months or who have been shown to have IgG antibodies in the last six months.

Antigen tests

Madrid regional officials also said that they will ask the central government for permission to let pharmacies perform antigen tests to determine whether a person is infected with the coronavirus. “We will send [the request] today to the ministry, and if there is a positive reply, I think we’d be talking about the month of December,” said the regional health chief, Enrique Ruiz Escudero. The diagnostic test could be administered at around 500 of the 2,880 pharmacies operating in the region, said officials.

Antigen tests are faster and cheaper than PCR tests, which require sending samples to a lab, but they are also considered less reliable. Antigen tests are generally recommended for people who have had symptoms for two to five days, or who have had close contact with a positive case.

After leading the statistics for weeks, the Madrid region appears to be flattening the coronavirus curve. The 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants has dropped to 252, the lowest on the mainland, compared with the national average of 325.

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Spanish PM announces ‘unique’ vaccination strategy via the country’s primary healthcare system




Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez made a public address on Sunday night to announce that the first coronavirus vaccine or vaccines that are approved and arrive in Spain will be administered in 13,000 different points across the country. The Socialist Party (PSOE) leader also explained some of the strategies that Spain will follow once the immunizations are approved by the appropriate regulatory agencies and are available for distribution.

The process could, Sánchez explained, “tentatively [start] in January.” Speaking at a press conference after a virtual meeting of the G-20 international forum, the prime minister added that a group of experts will make the decision as to which sections of society will be given priority for the vaccinations. Medical professionals and seniors – in particular those in care homes – will be among the first, along with the chronically ill and high-risk individuals due to previous conditions.

The 13,000 vaccination points coincide with the number of healthcare centers and clinics that are currently available in Spain’s regions. The primary healthcare network will be in charge of administering the first vaccines that arrive in Spain. This strategy differs from that announced by Germany, where each federal state, or länder, will have infrastructure that is separate from the healthcare system to begin the vaccinations. Berlin, for example, will use a velodrome, an airport hangar and a stadium, among other sites.

The primary healthcare network in Spain, meanwhile, is an efficient way to deliver the vaccine given that its centers are located close to the country’s population. Pedro Sánchez highlighted this strength on Sunday, pointing to the fact that 10 million people are vaccinated against the flu every year in the country. This year, in just eight weeks, the campaign has immunized 14 million people. “The National Health System is ready,” he said.

The vaccination strategy will be “unique,” the Spanish prime minister continued. It will be agreed on with the Interterritorial Council of the National Health System, which groups together all of Spain’s regional healthcare chiefs and the national Health Ministry. The government will “guarantee fair access to the vaccine or vaccines,” he added. The government’s plan involves starting the vaccination program in January, and ensuring that “a very substantial part of the population can be vaccinated with all the guarantees in the first quarter of the year,” as the prime minister had already announced on Friday.

As well as healthcare experts from the regions, participants in the creation of Spain’s vaccination strategy include biotech specialists, the Spanish Association of Vaccinology, and experts in mathematical and sociological modeling. Fair access to the vaccine is guaranteed, the prime minister added, thanks to the organization of the National Health System in Spain, based on universal access and the structure of the primary healthcare network.

The head of the government also explained that an information and registration system will also be created for monitoring the vaccination process. The Health Ministry will supply the vaccines while the regions will have to have at their disposal the materials, teams and resources needed to administer them.

Sánchez also reiterated that the European Union has signed five contracts to acquire 1.2 billion doses of the vaccine, and that Spain will be assigned 10% of the doses given the size of its population. Up to now, contracts have been signed with AstraZeneca, Sanofi-GSK, Janssen, BioNTech-Pfizer and CureVac – the latter just a few days ago. What’s more, there are advanced talks taking place with other pharmaceutical firms, such as Moderna from the United States, to close more deals.

Sánchez also admitted on Sunday night that the upcoming Christmas holidays “are going to be different from those that we have always known.” This year, he continued, “we are going to have to stay at a distance from our loved ones instead of hugging them.” The priority, he said, “must be avoiding a third wave.” He explained that the Interterritorial Council is working on recommendations for the festive season, which he defined as being “different but safe.”

The prime minister said that the state of alarm introduced in March during the first wave, which involved one of the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdowns, was successful; as is the second state of alarm that is currently in place, and which gives the country’s regions the legal framework needed to limit mobility according to the situation of the pandemic in each territory.

He pointed to the fact that the 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants has been falling in Spain for the last two weeks thanks to the restrictions that are in place, and said that this key data point is due to fall below 400 cases today, Monday. “This is still a very high incidence,” he warned, insisting that the government’s objective is to get this figure below 25 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, a threshold that the health authorities consider as having the epidemic under control. The fall in recent days, he continued, indicates that “the downward trend is consistent and that the measures are having an effect.”

The latest data from the Health Ministry was released on Friday, and showed that the 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants in Spain is at 419, with major differences between regions. Castilla y León, for example, nearly doubles the national average with 769, followed by the Basque Country with 691. The Canary Islands, meanwhile, are at the other end of the scale with 80 cases. None of Spain’s regions is below the 25-mark. The peak of the second wave was seen on November 4, when an average of 529 cases per 100,000 inhabitants was registered. Since then, the figure has been falling, albeit very slowly.

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Italy and Spain report highest daily Covid deaths of second wave




Italy and Spain have both recorded their highest daily coronavirus death tolls of the second wave, reporting 731 and 435 deaths respectively over the past 24 hours.

Italy, the first western country hit by the virus, has logged 46,464 Covid deaths while Spain has logged 41,688.

Such high Italian daily death figures have not been seen since 3 April, when the country was still in lockdown. The Spanish toll is well up on last week’s previous second-wave record of 411 deaths.

The second wave has already killed 9,000 people in Italy, where the alternative approach to a nationwide lockdown has so far shown little success. The number of total infections passed 1m last week and cases are rising at more than 30,000 a day.
Early in October the government introduced a coloured three-tiered system to combat the virus. Regions are divided into three zones – red for the highest risk, then orange and yellow.

In the red zones – which include Lombardy, Tuscany, Calabria, the autonomous province of Bolzano, Liguria, Piedmont and Aosta Valley – residents can only leave home for work, health reasons, essential shopping or emergencies. In the orange and yellow zones, slightly less severe restrictions were introduced.

A leading physician said on Tuesday that the government may have to make them tougher.

“Next week we’ll know if the [contagion] curve has stabilized or has started to come down,” Andrea Crisanti, the director of microbiology and virology at the University of Padua, told the news agency ANSA.

“If it does not come down, it will be necessary to do something else. The social and emotional price is immense – 9,000 people have died since the start of the second wave, we must not forget that.”

The Veneto region on Tuesday registered 100 deaths, its highest daily toll since the beginning of the pandemic.

Intensive care unit (ICU) doctors said the strain on units during the second wave was almost unbearable in high-risk red zones.

Antonino Giarratano, head of the ICU doctors association SIAARTI, told TV channel Rai 3: “It has been stated that the pressure on intensive care is sustainable but in fact in the red regions the pressure is almost unsustainable, and in the orange ones it is very, very heavy.”

Covid-19 and the containment measures have pushed Italy’s economy into a deep contraction.

The Italian retailers association Confcommercio said on Tuesday that consumer spending plunged again in October, dropping 8.1% year on year. Tourism-linked businesses were hardest hit, with recreation services down 73.2%, hotels down 60% and bars and restaurants down 38%, it said.

In Spain, which has been under a new state of emergency since the end of October, the total number of cases has passed the 1.5m mark to reach 1,510,023. More than 219,000 cases have been diagnosed over the past fortnight alone.

Although the number of cases per 100,000 people is decreasing across Spain as a whole, infection levels remain high in some regions: there are 798.3 cases per 100,000 people in Castilla y León, compared with a national average of 465.9.

Hospitals are also under pressure, with 32.5% of Spain’s ICU beds occupied by Covid patients. Fernando Simón, the head of the national health emergencies centre, said that while infection rates appeared to be coming down, “this trend we’re seeing is not a victory”.

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