Read the full article by Tom Perkins (The Guardian)
“In Wilmington, 50-year-old Tom Kennedy thinks it might be time to stop fighting the cancer that started in his breast and now grips his spine. He’s endured 85 chemotherapy treatments since an inverted nipple sent him to the doctor five years ago, and he fears the endless struggle to keep him alive is more than his daughters can bear. He wonders if it’s time to let death take him so his family can move on.
A deadly cancer has already taken 43-year-old Amy Nordberg away from her family, also of Wilmington. Nordberg died in January after a three-year battle with a vicious cancer that followed the development of multiple sclerosis. The cancer moved through her body faster than doctors expected, enveloping her colon and invading her bone marrow.
Kennedy and Nordberg are only two among many sick and dying people who live in the Cape Fear River basin of North Carolina, where environmental testing has found persistently high levels of different types of toxic compounds known collectively as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
Several industries operating in the area have been using PFAS for years, while DuPont and successor Chemours have been producing the chemicals at a plant in Fayetteville situated along the river. PFAS are typically part of the manufacturing of thousands of products resistant to water, heat and stains.
Some of the most widely studied types of PFAS have been linked to a range of human health problems, including cancers. They’re called ‘forever chemicals’ because they don’t degrade and accumulate in the environment and human bodies.
But despite more than 20 years of warnings from public health advocates, exposure to the chemicals remains almost impossible to escape – particularly for the people of the Cape Fear River basin.
The physical and emotional suffering that comes with living in an area polluted by toxins is ripping through families, scarring lives and short-circuiting dreams for the future.
Making it all worse is the fact that while many people feel certain the health problems they or their friends and loved ones are experiencing are connected to the PFAS pollution, confirming those suspicions has been almost impossible. State and federal regulators have pushed back against requests for in-depth studies.
‘The response is not proportional to the harm that’s been committed here,’ said Emily Donovan, executive director of the Clean Cape Fear advocacy group, created in 2016 in response to the crisis.
Splashing in PFAS foam
Chemours has acknowledged the concerns about PFAS contamination and says it has been working for several years to address them with residents and regulators.
Still, the signs of contamination are all around. On beaches in Oak Island, near where the Cape Fear spills into the Atlantic Ocean, children build sandcastles and splash in PFAS foam, a form of toxic waste. When it rains, PFAS-laced foamy water bubbles in gutters in the town of Leland.
PFAS contamination has been documented throughout the region – in drinking water; in air and soil samples, in crops, in livestock and fish; and, notably, in blood samples taken from people who live and work in the region.
The basin is considered an important natural resource for drinking water, agriculture, and recreation. But the 450,000 residents and another 200,000 tourists who visit the area annually risk exposure to PFAS contaminants, experts say.
It all makes the region a perfect ‘petri dish’ for PFAS research – a chance to study how 40 years of exposure to a broad cross-section of PFAS affects a large population’s health, according to a coalition of community and environmental justice groups that have demanded comprehensive research program on 54 PFAS emitted by the Chemours plant.
The EPA has rejected the requests and has said it will analyze only seven PFAS and attempt to extrapolate their health impacts and toxicity data across the entire class of over 9,000 PFAS compounds.
Last month, the coalition sued the EPA over the issue.
‘We’re outraged – they basically gave us nothing,’ said coalition attorney Bob Sussman.
The problems in Cape Fear persist even after the Biden administration last year launched a sweeping multibillion-dollar project aimed at reducing PFAS use and public exposure to the chemicals.
Because the chemicals don’t naturally break down, meaningfully reducing levels in drinking water near the plant and remediating the land will likely take decades, said Detlef Knappe, a PFAS researcher with North Carolina State University.
‘Peoples’ lives really got turned upside down because it’s not just drinking water, it’s likely food, fishing, swimming in the lakes, property values: all of these things won’t change for the foreseeable future,’ Knappe said. ‘It’s a tragedy, a travesty, and, yes, it’s a result of four decades of Chemours basically operating without oversight in terms of those compounds.'” …