Since the 1940s, toxic, man-made chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — referred to by the acronym PFAS — have accumulated in water, air and food supplies. Federal regulators banned some strains from production, but their replacements could be just as dangerous.
PFAS compounds were originally attractive to manufacturers because of their heat-, stain- and grease-resistance. Their first well-known use was in DuPont Industries’ Teflon cookware, which formerly contained a long-chain PFAS chemical called PFOA.
When research in the late 20th century revealed rising levels of PFOA contamination across the United States, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in. By 2015, companies participating in an EPA program had phased PFOA out of production.
Short-chain PFAS chemicals were created to replace PFOA and its long-chained relatives. They were marketed as harmless replacements, but researchers began questioning their safety in 2011. The controversial short-chain group includes GenX, which was measured at dangerous levels in Eastern North Carolina in 2017 and is still a concern in the area.
In an August 2019 study, Auburn University scientists found that short-chain chemicals are more persistent in aquatic ecosystems and may pose a greater risk to humans and the environment.
In addition to the problems posed by the new chemicals, communities also face the aftermath of old contamination. Dubbed the “forever chemical,” PFAS cannot break down naturally. Chemicals manufactured decades ago still contaminate resources and accumulate in organisms today.
A February 2019 EPA study estimates that 99 percent of the U.S. population has PFAS chemicals in their bloodstreams. High levels of exposure can lead to health issues such as high cholesterol, thyroid diseases, low birth weights, immune system complications and even cancer.
In North Carolina, residents of Pittsboro could be at risk. Water samples collected by Emily Sutton with the Haw River Assembly identified high levels of PFAS chemicals in the Haw River, which also serves as the community’s drinking water source. The origin and effect of the contamination is unknown, but Duke University researchers plan to explore the situation over the next three years.
Researchers involved with a congressionally mandated PFAS exposure assessment will investigate levels in Berkeley, W.Va., this fall. The study, part of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, will research PFAS exposure in eight communities near military sites.
Since 2008, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, and 10 other state governments have adopted laws regarding PFAS restrictions, according to environmental nonprofit organization Safer States. Eighteen states including Kentucky and North Carolina are reviewing new or additional PFAS regulations. — By Rachael Kelley
In June 2017, the Wilmington StarNews published news of high levels of GenX, a type of PFAS, contaminating Eastern North Carolina’s Cape Fear River. The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority noted the PFAS waste came from a Fayetteville, N.C., manufacturing plant operated by the chemical company Chemours, a spin-off of DuPont, about 100 miles upstream from Wilmington.
This wasn’t the first time PFAS levels have reached a high point. According to Port City Daily, in 2013 and 2014, researchers found GenX concentrations as high as 4,500 parts per trillion in raw water entering the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant, with average levels of 600 ppt. In November 2017, a few months after StarNews reported on the issue, state regulators revoked Chemous’ privilege to discharge wastewater into the Cape Fear River in an attempt to lower PFAS levels. Levels have fluctuated since, Coastal Review Online reports, generally staying near 100 ppt in raw water but sometimes rising close to 300 ppt.
In June 2019, water sampled by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority revealed the PFAS levels had elevated again when the raw water sample reached 262 ppt. Cape Fear authorities attributed the June spike to low flow in the river, but they are investigating the possibility of other chemical sources.
Local authorities plan to construct carbon filters at the Sweeney Water Treatment plant to further ensure affected residents have clean water. This $46 million project is expected to be operational by 2022. — By Jamie Tews