map of chemours sites, noting wind pattern, wherewhere airborne GenX may have been carried
Models are predicting that air emissions from manufacturing units at Chemours were most likely to have drifted to the northeast and southwest of the property. Source: DEQ

By Catherine Clabby

People in the lower Cape Fear River basin are still living with lots of uncertainty over how much GenX and sister chemicals two companies released into public and private drinking water supplies.

Now more questions are rising.

Dutch scientists this week briefed North Carolina scientists that GenX and a related older chemical, PFOA (or C8), has been detected in vegetables, grass and leaves near a Chemours plant in The Netherlands.

So might fruit, vegetables or livestock raised near Fayetteville Works, now operated by Chemours, pose hazards to people? What about fish harvested from nearby lakes or streams?

“We don’t know yet,” said NC State University toxicologist and fish biologist W. Greg Cope, a member of the DEQ Science Advisory Board and a leader in North Carolina Cooperative Extension program. “And that’s the hard part when people ask questions. We’re ready to help when there is information to share.”

Data from abroard

On Monday, the faces of four Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment scientists filled a video screen in the ground floor hearing room of the state-owned Archdale Building in downtown Raleigh.

The people on the U.S. end were researchers, members of a science advisory board created to help Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s state Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services assess risks from emerging contaminants, at what levels they pose hazards, and when regulation is needed.

a woman holds a large jug of yellowed water.
Beth Markesino of Wilmington’s Stop GenX in Our Water poses with a jug of creek water a friend gave her. She was the only member of the public to speak to the Science Advisory Board this week, where she voiced frustration that members had not yet finished research reviews needed to assess safe levels of the chemical in water. Chairman Jamie Bartram, director of the Water Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill and chair of the board, said members were moving as swiftly as they can while being meticulous. Photo credit: Catherine Clabby

The Dutch scientists explained that limited testing found evidence of GenX contamination in some plant life near a Dutch-based Chemours factory by the Port of Rotterdam.

“Carrots, beets, lettuce, several other varieties of crops were tested,” said one Dutch presenter. “About 60 percent came back without any detected PFOA or GenX. … [G]ardens very close to factory showed PFOA and GenX.”

Air emissions appear to be the source because municipal water serving people living near the Dutch facility is clear of contamination.

The data are spotty, the scientists made clear. Year-round sampling has not been tackled. Nor have tests of eggs or cow’s milk produced near the Dutch facility, which, unlike the North Carolina plant, does not produce GenX but uses it in manufacturing.

Fish obtained from lakes near the Dutch Chemours plant will be tested, with results expected later this year.

North Carolina officials will also test fish in this state for PFAS contamination, DHHS spokesman Jim Jones said Thursday. DEQ will collect fish from Marsh Wood Lake in Cumberland County later this month or in early March and send the tissue to a certified lab.

“[O]nce the samples have been reviewed and the data verified, the results will be made available to the public. This data will be used as guidance on recommendations relative to fish consumption,” said a written statement Jones sent.

There is one spot of evidence that GenX can contaminate food here. The state Department of Environmental Quality late last year confirmed private lab test results that detected substantial levels of GenX in honey produced by bees raised in Bladen County.

Testing detected one GenX level of 2,000 parts per trillion in the honey which far exceeds the current state health goal of no more than 140 parts per trillion of GenX in drinking water. Though as Michael Scott, director of the DEQ Division of Waste Management, pointed out, people don’t eat nearly as much honey as they drink water.

“We don’t have any reason to discount the results,” Scott said.

The honey had been produced for personal, not commercial use, but the beekeeper threw it away rather than use it “out of precautionary principle,”  Scott said.

The precautionary principle, embraced in many public health disciplines, recommends acting against a potential health threat, even when a full scientific understanding of a threat is not yet available.

Bladen County isn’t one of the largest agricultural counties in North Carolina. But residents there do farm. Bladen Farm Bureau figures place the county as third in hog and pig production, and ninth in turkeys raised.

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs is closely monitoring DEQ and DHHS efforts to assess risks from PFAS. But it doesn’t yet have information that would prompt farmers near the plant to change their practices.

“We have been engaged with DEQ and DHHS on this, but in the absence of legal limits, we are continuing to look to them to advise us on their public health goals and potential impacts,” agriculture agency spokeswoman Andrea Ashby said.

Complex and ever-changing

GenX and several other perfluorinated compounds have been detected in the river and pubic drinking water intakes scores of miles from the Fayetteville plant and in more than 200 nearby drinking water wells at various concentrations.

shows a map of the Cape Fear River basin witih landmarks noted, including Fayetteville
This map shows the length of the Cape Fear River basin. Chemours is located below Fayetteville. Source: National Oceangraphic and Atmospheric Administration.

Health risks from exposure to PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that are not regulated by EPA, are still under study. In general, exposing lab animals to high levels of the compounds produced changes in liver, thyroid and pancreas functioning. Changes in hormone levels have been detected too.

As DEQ Secretary’s Science Advisory Board members absorb the data they are receiving in preparation for helping DHHS set exposure limits, there’s plenty of other GenX news to keep up with, including:

  • Chemours has been ordered to provide bottled water to at least 114 private well owners (out of 349 tested as of December) living near its chemical manufacturing compound. Samples in their drinking water turned up GenX above the provisional state health goal of 140 parts per trillion.
  • Bloomberg news has reported that Chemours has received a grand jury subpoena related to GenX discharges near Fayetteville into the Cape Fear River. This state’s DEQ disclosed last summer that it had received a subpoena too, from the U.S. Attorney’s office of the Eastern District of North Carolina.
  • As first reported in the Wilmington Star News, four Republican state Senate members are asking the U.S. EPA to audit the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s administration of permitting and Public Water Supply programs. They have also asked for guidance on whether a North Carolina agency can set standards for emerging chemicals that are not regulated by federal standards, which is the case with PFAS chemicals.
  • The EPA recently directed Chemours to test for GenX in public and private drinking water supplies near its Washington Works operation in West Virginia. DuPont’s failure a decade ago to disclose internal evidence that C8 pollution released from that plant posed health risks resulted in a $10.25 million fines with EPA and a $670.7 million court settlement with nearby residents.

Correction: This story originally reported that four House members were calling for an audit of DEQ by EPA. They were actually senators who called for the audit.

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Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...

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