According to a new study, raw water supplies for at least 150 public utilities in North Carolina contained some level of toxic fluorinated chemicals, known as PFAS or “forever chemicals”, because they never break down in the environment.
This comes after researchers from N.C. State University finding GenX chemicals in wells and water from 70 homes in Cumberland and Bladen counties near the Chemours chemical factory south of Fayetteville. Of these, 33 wells had GenX concentrations of more than 140 parts per trillion.
The highest total PFAS concentration was detected in the Haw River, the water supply for Pittsboro, at 844.8 ppt. For GenX, the highest level was 29.3 ppt in Pender County, which gets its water from the Cape Fear River. And the sum of PFOA and PFOS, two compounds that have been phased out, reached 57.5 ppt in the raw water supply for the Orange County Water and Sewer Authority. OWASA gets its water from the Cane Creek Reservoir and University Lake; it serves customers in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
The hotspots in eastern North Carolina were primarily in the Lower Cape Fear River Basin, part of which has been contaminated with PFAS by the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant. However, farther upstream there were also spikes — in Smithfield, West Johnston County, Harnett County, Cary and the Harris Nuclear Plant Water Supply system.
In the Upper Cape Fear River Basin some industrial users and airports in Greensboro, Burlington and Reidsville are responsible for contaminated discharge. Even water systems not typically associated with PFAS contamination had hits, including Bessemer City, South Granville County and Tarboro.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to PFAS can hinder development in children and infants, decrease fertility in women, interfere with the body’s natural hormones, spike cholesterol levels, affect the immune system and raise the risk of cancer.
A 2019 study found that Brunswick County had the most PFAS contamination, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, of 44 water samples taken across the nation. The PFAS contamination in Brunswick County is likely a result of the legacy of the Chemours facility in Fayetteville discharging these chemicals into the Cape Fear River — which provides drinking water to hundreds of thousands in North Carolina.
In 2017, the Cape Fear Public Water Utility Authority filed a federal lawsuit against the chemical giants DuPont and Chemours, accusing them of “a conscious disregard of and indifference to the rights and safety of others” by polluting water, river sediments, soil and air.
For decades, both companies had released PFAS into air and water, despite knowing the public health risks from such contaminants.
In May, legislation was introduced in an effort to “ban the manufacture, use, and distribution of PFAS and 2PFAS-containing products within the state to protect public health”. But the House Bill 1109 remains in limbo as it waits to be reviewed by the Rules Committee.
Bottom Line: The elimination of these chemicals is moving too slowly as scientists have called for a phasing out of PFAS for years. Lawmakers need to enact regulations and enforce prevention measures to ensure that our water is clean and safe.