A grassroots environmental organization in the Cape Fear River basin of coastal North Carolina wants the United Nations to intervene in a decades-long pollution fight and declare its ongoing PFAS pollution a human rights violation.

In a letter sent to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, Clean Cape Fear alleges that Dupont and its spin-off company Chemours have for decades contaminated their source of drinking water with carcinogenic chemicals. Among other things, the 36-page document, sent Thursday morning, asks that the commission deem the community’s pervasive pollution an infringement of international law.

“We live in one of the richest nations in the world, yet our basic human rights are being violated,” Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, said in a statement. “We refuse to be a sacrifice zone. Residents here are sick and dying and we continue to lack equitable access to safe water in our region, or the necessary health studies to truly understand the impact from our chronic PFAS exposures.”

The Cape Fear River provides water for 500,000 people in three counties. For three decades, unbeknownst to residents, the Fayetteville Works chemical plant owned first by Dupont and then by Chemours was slowly contaminating the river and local wells with PFAS chemicals. In 2017, the public, long confused by the commonplace occurrence of very rare illnesses, finally learned who was responsible when a local newspaper broke the story. 

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Chemours was made to pay a $12 million fine to the state and clean up its mess – but has yet to provide reparative assistance for the damage it caused. Now, the company has asked the state Department of Environmental Quality for a permit to expand its site, which sits 70 miles upstream from Wilmington,, a growing city of more than 117,000 people. 

In a statement to Grist, Chemours said it has taken several steps to reduce emissions and remediate the pollution.

“In doing so, at our Fayetteville, North Carolina site active process air emissions of fluorinated compounds have reduced by more than 99 percent and the volume of fluorinated compounds reaching the Cape Fear River have reduced by approximately 97 percent,” the company said. “When the barrier wall project at the Fayetteville site is completed, the reductions will be even greater. Chemours supports science-based regulation; our remediation activity and emissions control technologies are grounded in the best available science and proven approaches. It is unfortunate to see misinformation campaigns like this continue to be aggressively advanced by groups unwilling to acknowledge the proven progress that has been made or the truth that not all PFAS originates from our site.”

Only in the past few decades have scientists begun to fully understand what PFAS does to the human body. The substances, called “forever chemicals” and used in all kinds of industrial processes, bioaccumulate in the body. That means even a series of small exposures, or exposure through the food chain, such as in contaminated fish, can lead to serious health problems down the line. Research has linked these chemicals to endocrine disruption, multiple forms of cancer, pregnancy complications, and an array of other chronic and dangerous health problems.

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Clean Cape Fear claims in its letter to the UN that residents of the Cape Fear area have been exposed to more than 300 distinct PFAS chemicals. The region is home to one of the worst cases of PFAS contamination in the country.

Donovan, by her own admission, became an environmental activist only recently.  She was a youth group director at a local church and a devout Christian, mostly concerned with the weekly Bible study she ran. But she began to realize that, during prayer meetings, students discussed the same things over and over. 

“I noticed most students were asking heavy prayers,”  she told Grist.  “For terminal cancer in a parent, or a brother in the hospital for autoimmune issues.”  

With seven other community members, she started Clean Cape Fear around a dining room table.

“This is my mission project now,”  Donovan said. “This is what motivates me.”

Donovan says the contamination has not only impacted residents’ health, but also put a financial strain on the community, as local water utilities struggle to clean PFAS chemicals. The upgrades required to do so have resulted in sharp rate hikes. In the meantime, residents who buy bottled drinking water are incurring the costs of ensuring their own protection. 

Together with the U.C. Berkeley Environmental Law Clinic, Clean Cape Fear is demanding that Chemours and DuPont be held accountable for all water treatment and cleanup costs still to come.  They also demand that state authorities deny the expansion permit.

Claudia Polsky is the director of the law clinic. She led the creation of the letter, and hopes it leads to greater public appreciation of the dangers of PFAS. The European Union has already proposed a ban on the use of most PFAS chemicals, but in the U.S. some 200 million Americans live with PFAS in their drinking water. “There’s an underappreciation of the risk,” said Polsky. She added that when doctors in Cape Fear see patients for health problems that might stem from PFAS exposure, many of them don’t know what to test for.

Polsky believes their request to Marcos Orellana, the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights, marks a milestone in the fight against PFAS. Though the UN has investigated PFAS contamination in other nations, this would be the first in the United States. Should Orellana, who has investigated and reported on a similar case in Veneto, Italy, agree to launch an inquiry, the next step is to alert Chemours, DuPont, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the state Department of Environmental Equality. Each would be asked to assume responsibility for the pollution and defend their actions. The complaint would be made public. 

The communication asserts that the actions of DuPont and Chemours are illegal under international law. “DuPont and Chemours have violated the human right to clean water and a sustainable environment, the right to bodily integrity, the right to life and health, the right to information, and the right to access to justice and an effective remedy,” the document states. “As a signatory to relevant international instruments, the United States is legally obligated to protect these rights.”

Though the U.N. couldn’t force a response, Polsky says the allegation and inquiry would inspire public pressure for regulatory agencies to act. “We’re hoping it would create the conditions for the DEQ to deny the expansion permit,” she said. 

But even if the U.S. were to take severe actions on PFAS, Polsky says companies are adept at finding ways to modify the chemical recipes they use in order to continue business as usual. 

“It’s the crook one step ahead of the locksmith,” she said.

This story has been updated to include a response from Chemours.

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