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

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By Greg Barnes

Blood and urine samples from 30 people living near the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant showed no traces of GenX, but four related fluorinated compounds were detected in all of the blood samples.

One of those detected compounds, known as PFOA or C8, had been produced by DuPont at the plant near the Bladen-Cumberland County line from 2002 until around 2009, when the chemical giant replaced it with GenX, believing the latter compound’s shorter atom chain was safer for humans and the environment.

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

The switch came with the urging of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency after tests showed that nearly every American had PFOA in their bodies.

In June 2017, news broke that high concentrations of GenX were found in Wilmington’s drinking water, leading to public outcry, lawsuits and continuing investigations by the state Department of Environmental Quality.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested 30 close neighbors of Chemours — which spun off from DuPont in 2015 — whose well water was found to contain the highest levels of GenX. Sixteen other fluorinated compounds, collectively known as PFAS, were also tested.

Of the 17 PFAS researchers were looking for, nine showed up in at least one of the 30 participants’ blood samples. Eight PFAS were not detected in any of the samples, and four were found in all of them. One urine sample found PFAS at close to the lowest level able to be detected.

The median, or midpoint, detection levels of two PFAS (PFHxS and n-PFOS) in blood samples of the 30 participants was higher than the median found in the U.S. population. Most of the PFAS were either not detected in blood or were detected at levels similar to those found in the U.S. population as a whole, according to the state release.

Health effects unknown

The EPA lists PFOA as a likely carcinogen. DuPont used to make the compound at its Fayetteville Works plant before shipping it off to a plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia, for final processing. Residents living near the Parkersburg facility sued DuPont and Chemours and were awarded $671 million in a settlement last year.

Chemical diagram for GenX courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Less is known about GenX and the other compounds found in the blood and urine of some of the 30 people sampled in a joint effort by the state Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC and the Bladen and Cumberland county health departments. Results were shared with participants late last week.

Although its effects on humans are not yet understood, laboratory studies on animals have found that GenX can cause negative effects to the liver and blood, along with cancer of the liver, pancreas and testicles. PFAS, including GenX, persist and accumulate in the human body over time.

Check out NC Health News’ timeline on GenX contamination of the Cape Fear River.

The state placed a provisional health goal of 140 parts per trillion on GenX after the compound was found in the Cape Fear River and the water supplies for New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties. The 30 people whose blood and urine were tested all had well water above the 140 parts per trillion threshold. Chemours had been supplying most, if not all, of them bottled water for months.

“One point in time”

State Epidemiologist Zack Moore said it is possible that GenX could have left the study participants’ bodies before the samples were drawn.

“We don’t really know much about how long these chemicals hang around in the body,” Moore said. The study “only tells us about this one point in time for these particular people.”

Although the participant sample size was small, he said, the study will help compare the chemicals found in people living near the Chemours plant with people in other areas of the country as more information becomes available. Moore said the study was among the first of its type.

“Scientists do not fully understand the cumulative health effects of human exposure to PFAS,” the Department of Health and Human Services said in its news release. “It is not yet known what levels of PFAS in the body may be safe or unsafe, and this testing was not meant to determine if GenX or other PFAS are associated with any specific health effects. However, the testing may help health officials better understand exposures in North Carolina and could inform future human health studies.”

A Chemours technician arranges a mockup of a granular-activated carbon system that can be installed to filter water from local wells which have tested positive for GenX. Photo credit: India Mackinson

The release says the findings “cannot tell people where or how they were exposed to PFAS,” a large group of man-made chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products worldwide since the 1950s. The chemicals have been used to make carpets, clothing, fabrics for furniture, paper packaging for food and nonstick cookware. They are also used for firefighting at airfields and in many industrial processes.

Lingering doubts

Fran Minshew is among the 30 people who had their blood and urine tested. Minshew lives less than a mile from Chemours. Her well was among those that tested highest for GenX. Her blood samples in the latest study revealed PFOA at 1 part per billion, about five times lower than the amount in most Americans. Samples showed four other chemicals are also in her body, all lower than the national median.

“I don’t believe the test,” said Minshew, a breast cancer survivor who said she has also had thyroid issues and two skin cancers removed recently. “I think they are trying to keep people from talking about it.”

Chemours did not return a request for comment Wednesday. It maintains that the levels of GenX found around the plant are not dangerous.

GenX is one of thousands of so-called “emerging contaminants’’ that are not federally regulated. The EPA is developing toxicity values for GenX and anticipates completing that work soon.

In a separate study, North Carolina State University, East Carolina University and the EPA are analyzing blood, urine and tap water of 340 people living in the Wilmington area to determine their exposure to GenX and related compounds. That testing continues.

The state Department of Environmental Quality has been monitoring the levels of GenX, PFOA and PFOS in drinking water downstream of the Chemours plant. Those levels remain below EPA and state health advisories.

Greg Barnes

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years. Contact him at: gregbarnes401 at gmail.com