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By Greg Barnes

A state science board made no substantial changes before giving final approval of a report on GenX, the potentially carcinogenic chemical that has been found contaminating the Cape Fear River, along with hundreds of private wells surrounding the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant in Bladen County.

In a meeting of the North Carolina Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board on Monday, the 16-member panel did give a nod to residents whose wells have been contaminated with the fluorinated chemical that has been produced at the plant since 2010. GenX and other per- and poly-fluorinated compounds (known as PFAS) have been discharged into the Cape Fear by the DuPont spinoff company as a byproduct of manufacturing processes since at least the early 1980s.

The board approved a draft of the 25-page report in August, leaving unchanged a provisional health goal of 140 parts per trillion for GenX in water to be consumed by humans. That amount is the equivalent of dissolving 140 grains of sugar in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The state adopted the health goal shortly after the public learned in June 2017 that GenX had been found in higher concentrations in the Cape Fear River and in drinking water for Wilmington and other public utilities near the coast.

The board reports to the state Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Environmental Quality. After approving the draft report, the board accepted written comments from the public, receiving 11, mostly from residents living near Chemours.

Some of those residents urged the board to base the health goal on what is known as the practical quantitation limit, or PQL, defined by state statute as the lowest level of a contaminant in groundwater that can be reliably detected by laboratories. That level for GenX is 10 parts per trillion or 14 times lower than the state’s health goal.

Residents also urged the board to examine whether a mixture of GenX and other fluorinated compounds in drinking water creates a health hazard. Some private wells surrounding the Chemours plant, near the Cumberland County line, have been found to contain more than  15 contaminants in the same family of chemicals.

“We are victims of this contamination but yet we are being penalized and physically and mentally harmed further by this high health level. Please help us,” wrote Randa Dunn, who lives near the plant in Cumberland County. “I want to talk as a resident and human being. I am scared. My family is scared. We will not drink the water at any level, and we do not feel safe at any level.”

Acknowledging residents’ concerns

Little is known about the health effects of GenX on humans, but animal studies have found it to cause negatively affects the liver and blood, along with cancers of the liver, pancreas and testicles. PFAS, including GenX, persist and accumulate in the human body over time.

Board member Detlef Knappe, a researcher at N.C. State University, said during Monday’s meeting that the board should further discuss the opinions and concerns of residents before giving final approval to the report.

“This is a piece of evidence that needs to be considered in the whole decision-making process,” Knappe told the board.

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Board Chairman Jamie Bartram directed board members Knappe, Tom Augspurger and State Health Director Betsey Tilson to clarify the board’s position on the residents’ requests.

After a lunch break, Augspurger, a specialist on environmental contaminants with the U.S .Fish and Wildlife Service, said DHHS and DEQ had never charged the Science Advisory Board with evaluating the effects of a mixture of contaminants on human health, or the use of the PQL. Board members said they were charged only with evaluating the science-based value of the 140 parts per trillion health goal.

Although that science is limited, board members said, they expressed confidence that the 140 parts per trillion threshold will not cause adverse health effects during a lifetime of exposure. They did recommend, though, as part of the report that residents’ concerns be taken into account and studied further.

“This report would not preclude the policy decision to adopt that PQL to regulatory standard, however the charge of this advisory board was to recommend the science- and risk-based level that would be health protective,” Augspurger said.

In about two weeks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to publish a report setting a toxicity level for GenX, said Sandy Mort, an environmental toxicologist with the DEQ. That level could influence the state’s current health goal.

Final approval of the science advisory board’s report comes 11 months after its first meeting regarding GenX. The board was reconstituted and tasked in July 2017 with monitoring and advising state officials on the adverse effects of new and emerging contaminants on public health and the environment.

Log fumigation limits discussed

The board also discussed methyl bromide, which is used in log fumigation, which has become a growing industry in eastern North Carolina. Companies use the gas to kill pests before logs are sent overseas, mostly to China and India.

The companies fumigate the logs in large cargo containers for 60 to 72 hours. Then they open those container doors releasing the methyl bromide to the atmosphere.

Many countries have banned methyl bromide because it has been found to deplete the Earth’s ozone layer, but at high levels the gas is also known to cause lung, liver, kidney and nerve damage in humans, along with other severe health problems. DEQ regulators moved this summer to push companies using methyl bromide to “capture and control” at least 90 percent of the gas being released and asked for plans to reduce emissions.

Five companies in North Carolina are using the chemical for fumigation; in Bladen, Columbus and New Hanover counties. Four more companies have applied for permits, said Mike Abraczinskas, director of the DEQ’s Division of Air Quality.

The levels of methyl bromide leaving the companies’ boundaries isn’t known because rented monitoring equipment isn’t working properly, Abraczinskas said. Scientific models show that the levels of the chemical are higher than the tighter state regulations being proposed, he said.

“As more businesses seek to use methyl bromide at log fumigation sites in our state, the lack of specific federal or state regulatory measures for the use of this hazardous air pollutant creates a potential public health risk we must address,” Abraczinskas said in a statement.

The Science Advisory Board has been tasked with recommending an acceptable ambient level for methyl bromide and whether to designate it as a state toxic air pollutant.

North Carolina would join 22 other states if it regulated the chemical. The board endorsed a report on the compound but said more information is needed on occupational hazards and whether methyl bromide can cause acute problems at peak levels of release.

During the meeting, board chairman Bartram announced that he will be retiring from his position as director of the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and that this would be his last Science Advisory Board meeting. Sheila Holman, assistant secretary of the environment for DEQ, presented Bartram with a plaque for his service.

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