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Blood samples taken from more than 300 New Hanover County residents contain man-made chemicals unique to their drinking water source, but GenX is not one of them.

Results of blood tests from a GenX exposure study reveal four per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, specific to customers of the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, according to the North Carolina State University researchers who conducted the tests.

Beth Markesino of Wilmington’s Stop GenX in Our Water poses with a jug of creek water a friend gave her. She voiced frustration earlier this year that scientists had not yet finished research reviews needed to assess safe levels of the chemical in water. Photo credit: Catherine Clabby

Their findings, unveiled during a public meeting on the campus of Cape Fear Community College in downtown Wilmington last week, do not mean GenX is nonexistent in people who drink water sourced from the lower Cape Fear River.

“It means that we didn’t see it above the limit of our method,” said Detlef Knappe, one of the research team’s co-investigators.

The researcher’s method reporting limit was 2 parts per billion of GenX, explained Nadine Kotlarz, a postdoctoral research scholar at N.C. State.

GenX is the commonly used term for perfluoro-2-propoxypropanoic acid, a chemical compound produced to make Teflon, which is used to make nonstick coating surfaces for cookware.

That and other chemical compounds have been released into the Cape Fear River by the Chemours’ Fayetteville Works facility since the 1980s.

“GenX was not found in blood even though we did see it in 50 parts per trillion in tap water,” she said.

What they did find in blood samples are four PFAS that are unique to the lower Cape Fear River.

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PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals used in consumer products that can be released into the environment.

In this case, Nafion byproduct 2, PFO4DA and PFO5DoDA, which are types of perfluoro acid, and hydro-eve, a propanoic acid, were found in blood samples collected from 345 participants in November 2017. That was the same month the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, ordered Chemours to stop discharging wastewater with GenX into the river.

Of the blood samples, 99 percent contained Nafion byproduct 2, 98 percent showed PFO4DA, 87 percent had PFODoDA, and 76 percent contained hydro-eve.

“As far as well can tell these PFAS are unique to Wilmington,” Kotlarz said.

The levels of perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, found in the GenX study blood samples are higher than the national average.

Levels of PFOA found in blood samples collected throughout the United States have decreased from 5.2 parts per billion in 1999 to 1.5 parts per billion in 2015.

Blood samples collected from New Hanover County residents show the level at 4.4 parts per billion. Samples taken again from 44 participants of the study six months later showed slightly lower levels of PFOAs, but still higher than the national rate.

What this means to the health of the thousands of New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender county residents who rely on the lower Cape Fear as their drinking water source remains unknown.

GenX and other per-fluorinated and polyfluorinated compounds are poorly studied. Little is known about how these chemicals break down in the environment and any associated health risks.

Jane Hoppin, the study’s principal investigator, associate professor in N.C. State’s Department of Biological Sciences and deputy director of the university’s Center for Human Health and the Environment, said there some health outcomes that have been associated with these chemicals.

A study of 45,000 adults exposed to PFOAs from a DuPont and Chemours plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, showed increases in cholesterol, thyroid disruption, testicular and kidney cancer, and alteration to vaccines.

The GenX study in Wilmington aims to answer what health risks, if any, the PFOAs found in the blood streams of those tested pose.

North Carolina State University water quality scientist Detlef Knappe and graduate student Catalina Lopez at work in Raleigh. Knappe’s investigations identified the presence of GenX in the Cape Fear. He is working with other scientists to probe the extent of the problem and to attempt to identify methods for remediation. Photo credit: Julie Williams Dixon

Blood, urine and tap water samples were collected about a year ago from 345 participants living in the lower Cape Fear River basin. Of those, 56 are children older than 6.

More than half of the participants have lived in Wilmington at least 10 years, Hoppin said.

Lifelong Wilmington resident Sonya Patrick is not one of the study’s participants, but she attended Tuesday’s meeting to hear the results.

Like so many residents here, Patrick is frustrated that so many questions remain unanswered about the exposure of these chemicals to the human body.

“The answers were very vague,” Patrick said after the meeting. “Even though there may not be evidence of (GenX) it doesn’t mean it’s not present. This is people’s health we’re talking about. We still don’t know how this is overall affecting our health. I’m glad at least to know that there is more research that’s going to be done.”

Upcoming tests of urine samples will include measuring thyroid function and lipids.

“We’ll be able to understand more as we move forward,” Hoppin said.

Some residents have taken steps to try and remove the chemicals from their drinking water through filters.

Knappe said that all of the chemical compounds found in the blood samples can be removed using activated carbon. He recommended residents follow manufacturing guidelines on replacing activated carbon filters, which is typically every six months.

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority in October 2017 filed a federal lawsuit against Chemours and DuPont, alleging the companies knew the threats posed by the chemicals when it began manufacturing C8 and later replacing that with GenX at its Fayetteville Works site.

The utility alleges Chemours violated the Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation Recovery Act, Safe Drinking Water Act and Solid Waste Disposal Act and claims more than $75,000 in damages.

In May, CFPUA’s board of directors authorized treatment enhancements at the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant to reduce per-fluorinated compounds, or PFCs, which include GenX, in treated water.

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