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By Greg Barnes

The Pittsboro Town Board of Commissioners has agreed to mail notices to local water customers to alert them of contaminants in the town’s drinking water.

Board members stressed that the contaminants are unregulated and don’t exceed state or federal health advisories. But they said residents should be notified to let them decide for themselves whether to keep drinking the town’s water.

The decision to notify residents was made at a board meeting Monday night. It came after NC Health News published two stories late last month about perfluorinated compounds — collectively known as PFAS — and other contaminants that have been found in the Chatham County town’s drinking water.

Although the contaminants don’t exceed health advisories, researchers say they worry that they could, especially during hot, dry months when the Haw River is at its lowest flow. Pittsboro is the only municipality to draw its drinking water from the Haw.

Besides PFAS, researchers sampling the Haw have detected high levels of 1,4 dioxane, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists as a probable carcinogen, and bromide, which forms toxic byproducts when drinking water is disinfected with chlorine. All of those chemicals have been found in varying levels in 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,” Detlef Knappe, a researcher at N.C. State University, was quoted as saying in one of the NC Health News articles.

A report by Duke University researchers said PFAS in Pittsboro’s drinking water has measured 30 times higher than that found in Durham’s water. The report also compared PFAS concentrations in the Haw River to levels of GenX found in the Cape Fear River basin.

The report was used to secure a grant from Duke that will be used, among other things, to draw blood from Pittsboro residents to determine their exposures to PFAS and examine potential health effects.

Alert, not alarm

At the Town Board meeting, Mayor Cindy Perry, Town Manager Bryan Gruesbeck and the three commissioners who were present stressed that the town may soon embark on costly measures to eliminate the contaminants and increase water capacity.

A consultant, CDM Smith, is scheduled to make recommendations at the board’s Aug. 26 meeting. Another consultant, Hazen and Sawyer, has been looking into the possibility of Pittsboro partnering with nearby municipalities on a new water treatment plant and raw water intake on Jordan Lake.

Perry said a fine line exists between notifying residents of the contamination and unduly panicking the town’s roughly 10,000 water customers.

NC State professor Detlef Knappe (bearded, right) examines water samples taken on the Haw River at the old Bynum Bridge with his graduate students. Photo courtesy: NC State University.

“I’m bringing it before you tonight because I think it’s an important policy decision that the board needs to make,” she said. “This is the way we would want to proceed and we’re dedicated to the idea of alerting but not alarming the public.”

Commissioner Bett Wilson Foley, who asked Monday night that the matter of water quality be added to the agenda, said people should be made aware of the chemicals so they can make their own decisions on whether to drink the water unfiltered at home.

“But I also think that it is important to stress that we are looking at ways to address these chemicals and to remove it from our drinking water at our expense,” Wilson Foley said. “It’s not something that we are required to do, but we are doing it because we care about the people of Pittsboro.

The five PFAS found in Pittsboro’s drinking water on Oct. 26 were:
* Perfluorobutanoic acid, PFBA, 29.0 ppt.
* Perfluoropentanoic acid, PFPeA, 109.3 ppt.
* Perfluorohexanoic acid, PFHxA, 96.5 ppt
* Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, PFOA, 17.7 ppt
* perfluorooctanesulfonate, PFOS, 18.3
 
Source: Town of Pittsboro
“For me, it’s important that the people of Pittsboro feel that they can trust us, that we are not trying to sugarcoat anything, that we are being honest.”

One of the NC Health News articles focused, in part, on a Michigan couple who believe the level of PFAS in their 3-year-old son’s blood would have measured far lower than 484,000 parts per trillion had Michigan regulators  notified them of the contamination much sooner. The couple believes the PFAS, which was found in their well water, caused their son’s vaccinations to become ineffective, a documented health effect of the contamination.

Pittsboro resident Brent Levy said he was “surprised and worried a bit” after reading the story. He has a 3-year-old daughter and a 7-week-old daughter. Both appear to be fine, he said.

Levy, a pastor in town, said his family moved to Pittsboro last year. He said notification of residents is a good idea and asked about the steps the town board is taking to eliminate the contamination.

“If my water is not safe to drink or use, I would like to know,” said Levy, who is 33. “And I’d like to know that the people I entrust in these positions are aware and are making a concerted effort to rectify the situation for the good of the community.”

Not wrong, just proactive

Gruesbeck, the town manager, commended Adam Pickett, the town’s water supervisor, for making improvements that have led to Pittsboro winning water quality awards for five consecutive years. Gruesbeck said he is in favor of notifying residents, provided it is done in a positive manner.

“We’re not in violation of anything and we’re exceeding standards,” Gruesbeck said. “Typically, you put out a notice when you are actually doing something wrong. That’s not what’s happening here.”

Pamela Baldwin, the mayor pro tem, also emphasized that the town is making improvements but that water customers should be notified of the contaminants.

“This is something that we are going to do because we are concerned about our citizens, our children, our parents, our grandparents to all have safe drinking water,” Baldwin said.

The report was used to secure a grant from Duke that will be used, among other things, to draw blood from Pittsboro residents to determine their exposures to PFAS and examine potential health effects.

The town board voted unanimously to notify water customers by mail. Board members John Bonitz and Michael Fiocco were absent. The notices will be separate from customers’ monthly billing statements to help ensure that they are read.

Wilson Foley suggested that the notices provide website links to information regarding the contamination. Putting notices on the town’s website and Facebook page were also discussed.

Little is known about where the PFAS are coming from in the Haw or their potential effects on human health. Sources could include industries upstream, sludge from wastewater treatment plants that is applied to land, and leachate from landfills.

Studies have found that PFAS may increase the risk of certain types of cancer and may be linked to liver and thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, ulcerative colitis, problems with the immune system and potential effects on metabolism, pregnancy, children’s cognition and neurobehavioral development.

Measuring PFAS

The EPA has set a health advisory for the two legacy PFAS compounds — PFOA and PFOS — at 70 parts per trillion, either by themselves or in combination. There are no health advisories for more than 4,000 other PFAS.

The combined level of seven different types of PFAS found in the Haw River just upstream of Pittsboro’s water intake measured 1,076 parts per trillion in July 2018, one of the highest levels recorded in the state.

In January 2018, the state Department of Environmental Quality sampled the Haw near Pittsboro’s water intake and found a total concentration of PFAS measuring 1,205 parts per trillion.

The level of PFOS detected in the river 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.

This summer, the highest sample taken in the Haw River measured 690 parts per trillion for 13 types of PFAS, Heather Stapleton, a researcher at Duke University, said in an email.

Pittsboro now uses powdered activated carbon to filter its water, which Knappe called “somewhat effective” at filtering out contaminants.

The town provided results of drinking water tests for PFAS in raw and finished drinking water from Oct. 26, 2018, through Feb. 16, 2019. The highest test result, by far, found five different PFAS in finished drinking water that measured a combined 270.8 parts per trillion on Oct. 26, 2018.

Researchers caution against making assessments based on combined PFAS totals because so little is known about their potential health effects.

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

2 replies on “Pittsboro agrees to notify residents of drinking water contamination”

  1. Great article. I would add that there is an existing lifetime health advisory for one other PFAS besides PFOA and PFOS: GenX. The lifetime health advisory for GenX is 140 ppt, calculated by the NC Department of Health and Human Services and used throughout the state for PFAS investigations.

  2. What are the available ways residents can filter out the PFOS content at home? Which filtering system is most effective?

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