This story has been updated with additional information provided by the NC Dept. of Environmental Quality.
By Greg Barnes
The drinking fountains at Gray’s Creek and Alderman Road elementary schools will remain shut off when students return to classes in Cumberland County next month.
Those students have been drinking bottled water since October 2017, when the schools’ wells were tested for the suspected carcinogen GenX. The test results revealed little GenX in the drinking water — none at the Alderman Road school and just a trace at Gray’s Creek.
Regardless, school officials continue to provide bottled water out of an abundance of caution, said Lindsay White, spokesman for Cumberland County Schools.
“The safety of our students and staff is our top priority,” White said in an email. “We continue to offer bottled water to provide peace of mind to our students and staff at Gray’s Creek Elementary School.”
The two schools are about five miles from the Chemours Fayetteville Works chemical plant, where GenX and a cocktail of other per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS had flowed freely for decades into the Cape Fear River, contaminating drinking water for more than a quarter of a million people.
The chemicals were also released into the air via the company’s smokestacks, falling with the rain 10 miles or more from the plant and contaminating hundreds of private wells. The state has ordered Chemours to stop the chemicals coming out of the smokestacks, but residual contamination is expected to remain in river sediment, soil and groundwater for years to come.
About 70 miles north of Chemours, further upstream in the Cape Fear River watershed residents in the Chatham County town of Pittsboro also face PFAS contamination. In contrast to Cumberland County, where officials know that the source is Chemours, it remains unclear what manufacturing sources along the Haw River could be befouling the water. The Haw starts near Greensboro and empties into Jordan Lake, where the Cape Fear begins.
Although the concentrations of contaminants in Pittsboro’s drinking water are not above what federal regulators consider safe for two of the more prevalent legacy compounds — PFOA and PFOS — scientists worry that they soon could be.
What’s more, high levels of many other types of PFAS have been detected in the Haw, along with a probable carcinogen known as 1,4 dioxane and bromide, which forms toxic byproducts when drinking water is disinfected with chlorine.
Researchers are concerned that the levels of contaminants will spike during the summer, when the Haw River, where Pittsboro draws its drinking water, is usually at its lowest volume because of hot, dry weather.
State regulators have also sampled the Haw River for PFAS as part of a study of the Jordan Lake watershed. According to data from that study, which was released early this year, the total PFAS concentration in the river at Bynum measured 1,205 parts per trillion in January 2018. The level of PFOS on that date measured 590 parts per trillion, or more than eight times higher than the EPA’s health advisory for drinking water. The level of PFOA was also over the advisory, at 90 parts per trillion.
Those findings indicate that PFAS in the Haw River can be high, even during high rates of flow.
But few residents know that.
Pittsboro Mayor Cindy Perry estimated in March that roughly 200 of the town’s 10,000 or so water customers are likely aware of the contaminants in their drinking water. And documents for a massive new development, Chatham Park, to be built in the area note those new homes will get their water from the local authority, but don’t mention the possibility of contamination.
Perry told NC Health News that the town Board of Commissioners has held meetings about the contamination and has invited some of the state’s top PFAS researchers to speak about the problems. The town has also hired a consultant to identify the best methods of filtering PFAS out of its drinking water.
But it has not sent notices in water bills alerting residents of the contamination, and there is no mention of PFAS in the town’s annual safe drinking water reports. Pittsboro is the only municipality to draw its drinking water from the Haw River.
‘I wouldn’t want to drink that water’
The combined level of seven different types of PFAS found in the river just upstream of Pittsboro’s water intake measured 1,076 parts per trillion last summer, the highest recorded level in any North Carolina river since Chemours was ordered to stop dumping GenX into the Cape Fear.
None of those PFAS chemicals is regulated by the state or federal governments. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does set a health advisory for PFOA and PFOS at 70 parts per trillion, either by themselves or in combination. The samples taken in the Haw last summer exceeded those standards 15-fold. There are no health advisories for an estimated 5,000 other PFAS compounds.
Perry is torn over notifying residents. Because the chemicals are unregulated, she said, the town isn’t breaking any laws and it is working hard to rid drinking water of the contamination.
“There is a fine line between frightening our citizens and producing what kind of disclosure needs to be made,” Perry said, seated at her home in downtown Pittsboro. “We don’t want to frighten anybody, but we need much more definitive evidence and testing and opportunities for solving the problem.”
Pittsboro has added powdered-activated carbon filtration, which town Water Treatment Superintendent Adam Pickett said has helped keep the levels of PFAS in its drinking water down.
But the filtration system is only a stopgap measure. The town is considering filtering its water using reverse osmosis, an expensive but much surer way of capturing all of the contaminants.
Detlef Knappe, a researcher at N.C. State University, probably has more knowledge of PFAS contamination than anyone in the state. His team of scientists discovered GenX and other PFAS in the Cape Fear River.
“I completely agree. It’s a concern,” Knappe said about Pittsboro’s drinking water. “I wouldn’t want to drink that water or just give it to an infant without having some additional treatment at home.”
Residents in Michigan know all too well how important it is to be notified of PFAS contamination as quickly as possible. Some say that that state’s failure to notify them promptly could lead to serious health problems down the road.
For one little Michigan boy, the problems may have already begun.
Different state, similar problems
Nearly 800 miles north of Pittsboro, near the small town of Rockford, Michigan, 3-year-old Jack McNaughton runs around his home wearing a Batman T-shirt and goofy orange goggles.
On the outside, the only son of Seth and Tobyn McNaughton appears to be a normal, towheaded little boy. But in his bloodstream, Jack carries PFAS measurements as high as 484,000 parts per trillion. The level decreased some in the last round of testing in February. It’s now down to 291,000 parts per trillion.
The McNaughtons say their lives have become a living hell since the contamination was discovered. They worry that the PFAS in Jack may have compromised his immune system. They said doctors told them that three of Jack’s vaccinations, including ones against measles and chicken pox, weren’t effective.
In March, NIEHS reported possible links between human exposure to PFAS and adverse health outcomes, including potential effects on metabolism, pregnancy, children’s cognition and neurobehavioral development. The institute’s National Toxicology Program is now conducting animal testing to further understand the health effects of PFAS.
In a December presentation in Greensboro, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services listed other potential health effects from PFAS, including thyroid disease, liver damage, increased risk of certain cancers and increased cholesterol levels.
Seth McNaughton wonders whether his high cholesterol is related to the PFAS in his system, which measures 210,000 parts per trillion. He said his cholesterol levels continue to climb, despite changes in his diet and exercise routines.
Tobyn McNaughton wonders whether two miscarriages in the last year weren’t a result of the 224,000 parts per trillion of PFAS she carries in her bloodstream.
There’s a reason PFAS are known as “forever chemicals.” They don’t break down quickly or easily. The more contamination people ingest, the more it builds in their bodies. It accumulates much faster in children, who typically drink more water by body weight.
At this point, almost everyone in the world has some level of PFAS in them. For decades, the compounds have been used to produce a multitude of everyday products, including Teflon(™), Scotchgard(™), firefighting foam, rain-resistant clothing, pizza boxes, sandwich wrappers and even dental floss. A recent study even found PFAS exposure in the children of women living in the remote Faroe Islands.
The Associated Press reported in June that the FDA had found PFAS in meat and fish at grocery stores that measured over twice the federal health advisory level for PFOA and PFOS. The level found in chocolate cake was even higher — more than 250 times the advisory level.
The McNaughtons knew nothing about PFAS before 2017, when a law firm posted a flier on the door of their colonial-style home, which sits in an idyllic rural setting on more than three acres. The McNaughtons have lived there for nearly seven years.
Today, the Varnum law firm out of nearby Grand Rapids represents the McNaughtons and more than 200 other residents in lawsuits against Wolverine World Wide, a Rockford boot and shoe manufacturer whose brands include Merrell and Hush Puppies. The company’s headquarters remain in Rockford, but it no longer produces footwear there.
When they were still being made locally, Hush Puppies were a huge seller. Part of their manufacturing process took place at a former Wolverine leather tannery on the banks of the Rogue River in downtown Rockford. To make the shoes water-resistant, in the late 1950s Wolverine began buying barrels of 3M’s Scotchgard, a product that, at the time, was laden with PFOS.
The Scotchgard was stored and applied to leather at the tannery. Some of it spilled, seeping into the Rogue River. Leather scraps can still be found along the banks of the river near the tannery, which is now a grassy field.
Some of Wolverine’s waste — referred to as sludge — was dumped in a field about a quarter of a mile from the McNaughtons’ home. A former plant worker described to environmental activists how and where he had dumped the waste in the 1960s.
Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, now called Environment, Great Lakes & Energy — or EGLE — learned of the dump site from activists in 2017.
According to Garrett Ellison, a reporter for MLive who has doggedly documented Michigan’s PFAS story for three years, a state geologist well-versed in the flow of groundwater told his superiors in 2017 that drinking water in homes southeast of the dump should be checked for PFAS immediately.
But Mark Worrell’s superiors ignored his urgings. The McNaughtons and others with well contamination caused by a large plume originating from the dump site say about six months passed before the Michigan regulators finally tested their wells and found staggering levels of PFAS.
It probably would have taken even longer to get the wells tested had the U.S. Department of Defense not ordered all military installations to test for PFAS, including an old church turned armory near the dump site. Only when the armory’s well tested high for the contaminants did the Michigan DEQ begin sampling the wells southeast of the dump.
“For six months, they didn’t tell anybody that there may be a problem,” Tobyn McNaughton said.
Test results for the McNaughton’s well came back at about 4,500 parts per trillion for 13 different types of PFAS.
By comparison, the highest level found in a private well near Chemours in North Carolina measured about 4,000 parts per trillion for GenX. High levels of other PFAS have also been found in many of those wells, and a monitoring well on Chemours’ property has been found to contain nearly 3 million parts per trillion of PFAS. The state has ordered Chemours to clean up the contamination at its plant site.
Tobyn McNaughton said her son was a year and a half old when the family’s well was finally tested. Two more months elapsed before the McNaughtons received the test results.
During her pregnancy, Tobyn McNaughton said, she drank eight glasses of water a day, thinking it was good for her and her unborn son. Not long after Jack was born, she said, he was weaned off breast milk and began drinking water.
Had Michigan’s DEQ taken the geologist’s advice and tested their well earlier — or at least alerted people that there may be a problem — the McNaughtons believe the levels of PFAS in Jack’s system would be far, far less.
Today, the McNaughtons live in a 25-square-mile area surrounding Rockford that has been labeled a contamination zone, tanking the local property values. Signs along the Rogue River warn of contamination in sediment and PFAS in foam, which accumulates under a metal fish sculpture below a dam in Rockford’s quaint downtown.
The state has warned people not to eat fish in stretches of the river because they may be contaminated with PFAS.
Psychologist Sandy Wynn-Stelt also lives in the contamination zone. Her home sits directly across the road from the dump site. The level of PFAS in her well measures around 120,000 parts per trillion. The amount in her body measures 750 times above what is considered typical.
Wynn-Stelt’s husband, Joel, died from liver cancer about three years ago.
Wynn-Stelt won’t say whether she thinks the contamination killed him.
“Who knows?” she said. “It couldn’t have helped, I know that much, but who knows?
“That’s one of many difficult parts of all this. Nobody really has a good idea of what this is going to do to me. Nobody has a good idea of what this did to him. There doesn’t seem to be any idea of how to fix it.”
There are dozens of other contamination sites across Michigan, which is said to have the largest problem with PFAS in the country. More than 11,000 potential sources of PFAS contamination have been identified in the state.
North Carolina isn’t far behind on the list of states with PFAS exposure problems. It ranks third, according to East Carolina University researcher Jamie DeWitt.
PIttsboro residents to be tested
As North Carolina regulators work with Chemours to get the company to clean up its mess, researchers studying PFAS contamination have quietly shifted some of their emphasis to Pittsboro.
Duke University recently awarded a $495,000 grant (see below) for its researchers to study the sources of PFAS in the Triangle area and their potential health effects on Pittsboro’s residents.
As part of the researchers’ study, about 30 Pittsboro residents will soon be asked to have blood samples drawn to determine the amount of PFAS in their bodies.
One objective of the study is to determine whether PFAS exposure has led to a larger than expected number of women giving birth prematurely.
“National research on PFAS suggests that exposures in pregnant women are associated with low birthweight and preterm birth,” according to a report prepared by the researchers who sought the Duke grant. “While most babies survive, those born too early are at increased risk of chronic health conditions throughout their lifetimes, including respiratory and metabolic disorders.”
But few Pittsboro residents know that. At least not yet.
The town hasn’t told them.
“It’s a terribly tough position to be in,” Perry, the town’s mayor, said in March. “The fact is that we comply with state law and I think that has been for a long time the trip wire to the issue.
“Nobody has ever made the motion, nobody has ever pled for public disclosure and the emphasis has always been on the fact that we meet state regulations.”
After publication, NC Health News received a comment from a public relations firm representing Wolverine. The company says it has provided $35 million for remediation efforts, including bottled water and in-home filtration systems for families with contaminated wells in the Rockford area. Wolverine is suing 3M, the company that made the Scotchgard that Wolverine used on its shoes. Wolverine maintains that 3M knew for years about the health threat from PFOS and has refused to accept responsibility. Wolverine has a website, where it updates its responses to the contamination and community concerns.
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