shows screen shot of a google satellite image of the Chemours plant, the main source of GenX contamination in eastern North Carolina
The Chemours plant in southern Cumberland County is surrounded by farms and woodland. Scientists are testing animals living and crops growing nearby for evidence of contamination by GenX and other related industrial chemicals. Image courtesy: Google maps

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By Catherine Clabby

Will Cain drove the carcass of a dead calf from Cumberland County to a state lab in Raleigh early this month hoping someone, someday can tell him if chemical pollution harmed it.

Cain raises beef cattle on multiple plots north of the sprawling Chemours chemical factory property south of Fayetteville, including land about two miles away. Like some farmers nearby, he wonders if recently detected chemical pollution from the plant in air, soil or water threatens his livestock or other food raised nearby.

“The consumer has the right to know,” said Cain, who sells cattle to feedlots in corn-rich states such as Kansas to fatten them up before they are slaughtered and their meat readied for market.

Let’s be clear: Aside from a GenX chemical found in one sample of local honey, there is no publicly known evidence that industrial pollution released by Chemours or DuPont, the previous owner, has tainted foods raised nearby.

State officials are still assessing whether testing is needed in the vicinity of company’s 2,150 acres. Developing a means to conduct meaningful tests of food, they stress, would be a complex task that will take time.

For one, they would need to find or develop methods that detect per- or polyfluroalkyl (PFAS) compounds such as what is commonly called GenX in very different types of organisms, potentially from blueberries to swine. State officials also would need solid data on levels at which contamination could pose a risk to people or the environment.

“You can’t just collect samples of a turnip crop or a collard crop in  someone’s garden, send it to the lab, get back a range of values, and not be able to tell the public what it means. We want to be able to say whether it’s safe in food or soil or groundwater,” said Michael Scott, Division of Waste Management director for the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Big challenge

Scientists around the world are raising alarms about PFAS chemical contamination because it potentially carries a triple threat. The chemicals are so tough that they don’t break down in nature; they can accumulate in the tissues of people and other living things, including edible plants; and some bring known or suspect health risks.

Because the compounds are soluble in water, they don’t stay in one place either, instead traveling down rivers, through soils and with rain storms.

PFAS chemicals originating from the Chemours site, on the border of Bladen and Cumberland counties, have been found in residential drinking wells three miles away, in rainwater collected at seven miles distance, and many tens of miles away in drinking water drawn from the Cape Fear in and near Wilmington.

A portion of the industrial compound that Chemours operates on some 2,000 acres wedged between the Cape Fear Riiver and NC Route 87, right where Cumberland and Bladen counties meet. Photo credit: Catherine Clabby

So do plants or animals living close by harbor the chemicals too?

“The food is the next frontier,” said N.C. State University scientist Detlef Knappe, one of the small group of researchers who first detected Chemours chemicals in drinking water in this state.

Members of his laboratory have collected some food grown near Chemours but high-confidence testing remains a work in progress, Knappe said.

Signals from afar

Signals exist that food could be a concern.

In Ohio and West Virginia communities exposed to PFAS released by the DuPont plant now owned by Chemours, people who ate locally-grown vegetables had higher blood levels than others who didn’t. (Blood and urine of North Carolinians downstream of Chemours have been collected too but results are not yet known.)

Sampling has detected PFAS compounds in home gardens near PFAS pollution sites abroad and in Minnesota. Small amounts of GenX were found in plants grown very close to a Chemours plant in The Netherlands, for instance.

Researchers at both locations concluded that the detected amounts in the two spots were low enough that people did not need to stop eating food from their gardens in both places.

But you can’t use studies made at one polluted place to determine risks from PFAS contamination in another place, said Deanna Scher, the principal  epidemiologist, and James Kelly, a surveillance and assessment manager at Minnesota’s Department of Health.

That’s because contamination levels and other factors differ, just one part of the difficulty of assessing risks from unregulated PFAS that did not undergo rigorous, publicly disclosed health testing before being put to work, they said. “It’s frustrating to have to learn after the fact when the horse is out of the barn and to explain to people we don’t have many of the answers,” Kelly said.

State health officials in North Carolina are testing fish caught in polluted waters near Chemours for PFAS. If comprehensive agricultural testing happens here, it appears that the job will be split between state environmental and agriculture departments.

A memo written by Joe Reardon, assistant commissioner for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, recommended that DEQ officials focus any sampling they conduct “on commodities that are not entering commerce.”

That’s because the agriculture agency has jurisdiction over marketed agriculture, Reardon said.

Plus, testing without solid information about the risks from contaminants could give inaccurate impressions, said Reardon and agriculture department public affairs director Andrea Ashby.

“We are concerned that the collection of samples without an approved method or toxicological standard to reflect the significance of the findings could create unnecessary consumer anxiety and could negatively affect products’ ability to move in commerce,” Ashby said

Scott, the DEQ director, and NCSU’s Knappe agree that reliable testing and risk assessments standards are needed. Toxicologists with DEQ and the state Department of Health and Human Services are exploring what’s known, Scott said.

State officials until now have depended on a state provisional health goal of 140 parts per trillion as the threshold above which consuming GenX chemicals in drinking water over a lifetime has been posited to pose a health threat.

The US Environmental Protection Agency this summer is expected to release its awaited toxicity assessments for two forms of GenX chemicals, the dimer salt version and another version of Hexafluoropropylene oxide (HFPO), compounds used in the industrial process that Chemours calls GenX.

EPA is also expected to quantify a reference dose, the amount of chemical someone can ingest for a lifetime without anticipating harm.

Waiting

Cain, who drove that calf carcass to the state Rollins Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory in Raleigh this month, grew concerned about possible contamination after five calves in his herd of about 200 died during a 10-day span this month, he said.

Cain had sold cows to a close friend, Jeremy Singletary, who lost five calves and adult cows on land about three miles north of Chemours he said he rented about two years ago.

Singletary said a friend froze one dead calf in case it could one day be tested for PFAS contamination.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you GenX is killing my cows,” Singletary said by phone on Tuesday. “But I do need to know some type of answer.”

Low levels of GenX were recently detected in Robeson County, across the river from Chemours, in its water system and in a swamp about seven miles from the plant. It’s been detected in drinking wells there too.

William Canady, a fifth-generation farmer based in Robeson County, said he has not had mysterious problems with cattle, which he also raises about seven miles from Chemours. But he would like to know if any industrial compounds can be detected in his animals or among the long list of produce he raises for sale, including field corn, sweet corn, soybeans, oats, strawberries and watermelon.

“A lot of people work at that plant. I think the pay can be pretty good,” Canady said. “I just hate to see it doing damage to the community.”

To be cautious, he no longer feeds his cows any of the hay Chemours allowed him to harvest on its property the year before last.

He also wonders if the state has more options than testing commercial livestock to start getting a look at whether PFAS chemical may be tainting meat.

“There are a lot of deer right around that plant,” Canady said. ”They ought to test those deer. And move out from there.”

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Catherine Clabby

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...