Call for papers: “The Future of Forever Chemicals? Citizen Participation and Rising Awareness of PFAS and Related Contamination in a Time of Deregulation”

Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) annual meeting

March 17 – 21 2020 in Albuquerque, NM

There has recently been a great rise in public awareness over the health effects of exposure to Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) – often called “Forever Chemicals” because they do not degrade in the environment and persistently remain and accumulate in the human body. Nearly five thousand of these industrial chemicals have been used for decades in the production of a vast range of products. Exposure to these toxins has been potentially linked to kidney and liver disease, certain cancers, and numerous other serious conditions. There is much concern over PFAS in drinking water systems and, more recently, in our food supply.

A growing number of states are moving to enact strict standards limiting PFAS contamination. In response to pressure, the EPA and the FDA have taken steps to address the widespread presence of PFAS in drinking water and food. The CDC and other agencies are working to better understand health risks. This summer has seen a proliferation of news stories on PFAS contamination and community responses to protect themselves.

This session will consider the significance of the growing concern over contamination from PFAS and related toxic chemicals:  How is this public awareness being translated into action? How are applied anthropologists participating in these efforts?

Two of the papers will discuss public response and environmental activism in eastern North Carolina after revelations two years ago that a Chemours (Dupont) plant had been releasing GenX fluoroethers into the Cape Fear River for at least a decade. The river is the source of drinking water for more 300,000 people. 

We seek 3 or 4 papers from researchers working in similar settings where communities are confronting chemical contamination in their water and food supply through activism, citizen science, lawsuits, and/or media campaigns. Questions the papers might address include:

What strategies are organizers using to raise public awareness and form effective coalitions and partnerships?

How are they engaging policy-makers and state agencies to hold polluting industries accountable? 

What challenges do groups face in this period of deregulation of environmental protection and science denial?

What are the “environmental justice” dimensions of race, socioeconomic status, and other structural factors in the political ecology of chemical contamination?

How are medical and environmental testing results perceived and challenged by effected communities?

How does the ubiquitous presence of “forever chemicals” in the products of daily life influence risk perception? 

Does this moment of PFAS awareness have broader implications in the public and political discourse on environmental protection? 

Organizer:  Dr. William L. Alexander, Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Anthropology Department Chair, University of North Carolina Wilmington

For consideration, please send a 100-word paper abstract and short bio to

All preliminary inquiries are welcome. 

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