North Carolina’s Cape Fear River is a massive water system. It stretches across the lower half of the state, collecting runoff from 29 counties and providing water to millions of people. But in the city of Wilmington, where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean, residents are worried about the drinking water.
In a 2019 test of tap water, Wilmington and neighboring Brunswick County were among the top five areas for high levels of PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — a group of man-made chemicals commonly used for making nonstick or water-resistant products. The chemical class has been linked to health problems including cancer, and traces can be found in the blood of an estimated 99 percent of Americans.
Now, North Carolina is reckoning with the legacy of pollution upstream — and discovering what decades of PFAS contamination means for the rest of the country.
Watch the video above to see how PFAS products went from military technology to household staple, and why US chemical companies get away with regulating themselves.