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  • Human Rights Research Center

PFAS: The Silent Chemical Abusing Human Rights

Author: Shirley Lin

April 23, 2024


In the past ten years, consumers have been increasingly aware of what chemicals go into their bodies. Movements towards decreased pesticides in the growth of food, greater consumption of organic foods, and awareness of ingredients have brought attention to the effects chemicals have on the body. However, a group of chemicals has taken the world by storm, catching the attention of the United Nations: PFAS or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as the forever chemical. Now, what is PFAS? To answer this question, PFAS is “a group of man-made chemicals used in the production of firefighting foam, stain repellents, and non-stick cookware” (Michigan PFAS Action Response Team). PFAS is everywhere in almost everything, playing the role of a silent killer in a world where virtually everything is manufactured. As of February 21, 2024, the United Nations’ experts declared the pollution of PFAS a human rights issue or concern as chemical companies Chemours and DuPont in North Carolina have been discharging toxic chemicals into the Cape Fear River for decades, damaging the ecosystem.

This article explores how PFAS pollution impacts the daily lives of everyday people while delving into the effectiveness of legal frameworks used to address PFAS contamination as a human rights issue. In addition, this article conceptualizes cases where vulnerable communities are disproportionately affected to illustrate corporate abuses of legal frameworks or standards that govern the use and management of PFAS-containing products. This article proposes changes to preventative measures and risk management strategies to mitigate the environmental and health impacts of PFAS exposure.

What Did Dupont and Chemours Do?

Chemours and DuPont, the two companies at the forefront of PFAS news, have been dumping toxic waste since 1980 into the surrounding Cape Fear River; which supplies crucial drinking water to around 770,000 people[1]. These harmful chemicals come from the 2,000-acre Fayetteville Works plant that produces architectural and automotive coatings, laminates, plastics, and papers[2]. However, the controversy comes from the public claim that Dupont and Chemours knew the implications of PFAS on the surrounding environment and its effects on the human body but continued to dump these chemicals. If this is true, the two companies would have committed egregious acts of environmental negligence while putting the health of community members at risk.

PFAS works not only on the body but also the soul, as the surrounding community that uses the Cape Fear River as a source of water faces devastating medical battles. The Guardian in 2022 wrote a heart-touching story about two community members who had been fighting cancer furiously as “environmental testing has found persistently high levels of different types of toxic compounds known collectively as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS” (Perkins, 2022). These levels were above the federal advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. However, even 1 part per trillion can cause harm to the human body and is therefore rendered unsafe. The psychological torment accompanies the physical harm as 85 chemotherapy treatments have proved to 50-year-old Tom Kennedy that the fight to survive for his family can be rather tumultuous. In addition, 43-year-old Amy Nordberg fought cancer for three years before she lost her battle, creating devastating traumas for her family. Close to 40 years’ worth of highly polluted drinking water has led to multiple cases where families experienced physical and emotional scars as medical bills racked up.

Although PFAS has rampaged through surrounding communities of the Cape Fear River Basin, there are implications for low-income residents, as many live off the land fishing out of the river and cannot pay for filtered water. PFAS was also found in large amounts in the soil, impacting wildlife and crops. The ability to afford foods with little contamination is not an option for families who are struggling to make ends meet. PFAS preys not only on all communities but primarily on marginalized communities who struggle to pay sky-high medical bills.

Chemours and DuPont’s Responses

To rebut the claims that Chemours and Dupont have knowingly dumped toxic chemicals for decades, the two have written statements trying to remain reputable in the public sphere. Chemours statement was that they are dedicated to producing “vital technologies for green hydrogen, electric vehicles, and semiconductor manufacturing and are committed to responsibly manufacturing and producing products consistent with international principles, including the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” (Bruggers, 2024). Through the public statement, Chemours is trying to portray corporate responsibility by adopting responsible manufacturing practices while managing its reputation by mentioning and marketing its innovative and forward-thinking initiatives, such as green hydrogen, electric vehicles, and semiconductor manufacturing. This ploy to stay relevant while handling a public relations crisis is not an apology but a rebuttal.

On the other hand, DuPont wrote a letter flat-out denying their role in contributing to PFAS pollution. Their stance is rather direct: They claim they do not “make or use PFOA or PFOS in the development or manufacture of our products” (DuPont). DuPont’s stance is made clear within this singular sentence: they are in direct denial and disagreement with the community members residing near the Cape Fear River.

Reformation of PFAS Regulations

As PFAS has become prominent worldwide, the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) has aimed to address the issue of PFAS contamination under the Biden-Harris Administration to protect citizens within the United States. Due to the silent nature of PFAS, the E.P.A., as of February 2024, has proposed two regulations to alter the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), a federal law that oversees how waste and hazardous materials are disposed of. The regulation change would include adding “nine PFAS to the list of RCRA hazardous constituents and assure that the E.P.A.’s regulations reflect the E.P.A.’s and authorized states’ authority to require cleanup of the full range of substances that RCRA intended” (Environmental Protection Agency, 2024). This proposed change strengthens ecological protection measures, leading to better management and disposal of PFAS-containing materials. In addition, these potential regulations provide clarity and authority to the E.P.A. and authorized states regarding cleanup requirements, which could eventually lead to Chemours and DuPont being held accountable for managing PFAS contamination for future generations.

In addition to proposed regulations, three innovative methods have been created to measure PFAS more efficiently and accurately as of January 2024. The three methods encompass Final E.P.A. Method 1633 (which tests for 40 PFAS in the local environment ranging from groundwater to fish tissue), Final E.P.A. Method 1621 (which tests to find carbon-fluorine bonds in wastewater), and Other Test Method (OTM)-50 (which tests for 30 volatile fluorinated compounds in air). To make these three methods more understandable, they provide safety by comprehensively assessing PFAS contamination across different environmental media, ensuring wastewater treatment processes effectively remove PFAS compounds before discharging treated water, and even contributing to a greater understanding of PFAS contamination.

The beginning of 2024 symbolized the potential for crucial change on the PFAS awareness front. Many PFAS compounds that have been recognized have been attributed to names such as 40 PFAS or 329 PFAS. These numbers may be confusing, but they denote the variety of PFAS compounds that can be identified using different testing methods. For example, 40 PFAS indicates a process that can detect or analyze 40 specific PFAS compounds but is less complex and valuable in insight than 329 PFAS. However, as of January 2024, the E.P.A. “finalized a rule that prevents companies from starting or resuming the manufacture or process of 329 PFAS that has not been made or used for many years without a complete E.P.A. review and risk determination” (Environmental Protection Agency, 2024). The implication of this rule for inactive PFAS is that companies’ decisions in materials to produce products will have to be reviewed to analyze the harm the product could cause. Although not all PFAS have to be reviewed, this provides hope for the future as PFAS rules and regulations become stricter, making it harder to dispose of large quantities of PFAS into the environment.

Will We See Change?

Proposed changes to rules and regulations may present themselves as hopeful permanent changes. However, various factors can impact these changes. For example, implementation, enforcement, stakeholder collaboration, and adaptability to emerging PFAS-related changes impact how much change the Cape Fear River communities will see. Regarding Chemours and DuPont, the two companies must foster collaboration between the government, research institutions, industry stakeholders, and environmental organizations to create effective PFAS detection systems and develop cost-effective and sustainable solutions for managing PFAS contamination solutions or mitigation strategies. To first do this, the two companies may need to come forward and admit their involvement in the pollution of PFAS to invite local communities to give input on how to be best transparent while continuously monitoring and evaluating PFAS levels and their effects on human populations and the environment. In addition, more outstanding funds for research must be given to improve the detection of PFAS to make the process more efficient and less costly, as testing bodies of water for PFAS can range from $300 to $600 per sample [3]. As tests become cheaper, more water can be tested to determine if communities are at risk due to their drinking water. Testing for PFAS must become widely accessible so people can better protect themselves and advocate for cleaner drinking water.



[1] Perkins , T. (2022, July 12). Cancer fears plague residents of us region polluted by

“forever chemicals.” The Guardian.

[2] The Chemours Company. (n.d.). Our businesses.

[3]  Testing and research — military poisons. (n.d.). Military Poisons.


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