Cancer fears plague residents of US region polluted by ‘forever chemicals’
Exposure to harmful PFAS remains almost impossible to escape – particularly for the people of the Cape Fear River basin
by Tom Perkins
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 resisted requests for in-depth studies.