UN human rights experts have raised the alarm over alleged human rights violations linked to PFAS pollution emanating from a Chemours plant in North Carolina. The crisis, dubbed the “forever chemical” catastrophe, is causing widespread health concerns and has prompted international scrutiny.
A Threat to Health and Human Rights
The United Nations Human Rights Council has publicly disclosed letters from its experts to Chemours and four other entities accused of playing a role in the PFAS pollution crisis. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of approximately 14,000 chemicals renowned for their resistance to water, stains, and heat. The UN experts, independent special rapporteurs appointed by the council, expressed deep concern about the contamination of air, soil, water, and the food supply in southeast North Carolina.
The UN letter pointed fingers at DuPont and Chemours for what it described as “purposeful suppression and concealment” of PFAS dangers. The experts underscored their worries about the apparent disregard for the well-being of the affected communities, who have endured decades without access to clean and safe water. The UN called for a response from Chemours, highlighting instances or policies deemed inconsistent with international human rights standards.
In response, Chemours dismissed the UN letter as rife with “mischaracterizations” and highlighted recent efforts to reduce pollution levels. The ongoing crisis, which has led to severe health problems in the region, is linked to the Fayetteville Works plant operated by Chemours.
PFAS and its Devastating Impact
PFAS, often referred to as “forever chemicals,” are virtually indestructible and have been associated with various health problems, including cancer, liver issues, thyroid disorders, birth defects, kidney disease, and compromised immunity. The UN’s investigation into the North Carolina environmental crisis marks its first foray into a US-based environmental issue.
A citizens group collaborated with the University of California Berkeley Environmental Law Clinic to seek the UN’s intervention and redress for the alleged violations. Residents claim a denial of their rights to clean water, bodily integrity, information, an effective remedy, and a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.
The UN’s investigation also called out the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), chemical producer Corteva, and the Netherlands government for their alleged roles in the crisis. Chemours, the letter alleges, discharged toxic chemicals into the Cape Fear River, contaminating drinking water for hundreds of thousands downstream. The PFAS waste from the plant polluted the air until 2019, further exacerbating the contamination of drinking water sources.
The letter cites research revealing the presence of Chemours’ chemicals in fish, crops, and a staggering 97% of blood samples tested in the region. It accuses DuPont and Chemours of concealing information about the toxicity of PFAS, withholding pollution data, and taking meaningful action only after being court-ordered to do so.
Chemours responded by highlighting the significant actions it has taken to reduce PFAS discharges, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. Corteva and the Netherlands also issued responses, but DuPont and the EPA have yet to reply.
While the UN does not make a formal judgment on human rights violations, the investigation increases pressure on regulators to take action. The EPA’s recent pause on PFAS waste shipments from the Netherlands to Fayetteville is a step in the right direction, and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality is deliberating on Chemours’ proposal to expand PFAS production at the plant.
As the PFAS crisis unfolds in North Carolina, the eyes of the world are on regulators to ensure the protection of human rights and environmental well-being. The UN’s involvement underscores the urgency of addressing the alleged violations and finding sustainable solutions to the persistent PFAS pollution plaguing the region.
Photo: James Willamor