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By Greg Barnes

Environmental groups are hailing President-elect Joe Biden’s announcement Thursday that he has tapped North Carolina’s top environmental steward as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The selection of Michael Regan, now secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, “shows Biden’s commitment to rebuild EPA, protect public health and advance environmental justice,” the national Environmental Working Group said in a statement.

Regan, 44, would become the second Black leader of the EPA, after Lisa Jackson, who held the position during President Obama’s second term.

Biden has vowed to select a diverse cabinet and to strengthen the EPA, which has faced criticism under President Trump and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist.

Biden has also said he plans to fight for strict regulations of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — collectively known as PFAS or “forever chemicals.”

Coronavirus and PFAS 

Biden’s announcement of Regan as his EPA chief came shortly after scientists attending a virtual media briefing suggested that PFAS in people’s blood may make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus and less responsive to potential COVID-19 vaccines. The briefing was hosted by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment.

Jamie DeWitt, a toxicologist from East Carolina University, said research shows that PFAS can weaken the immune system’s response to vaccines or overstimulate the response.

After decades of use in manufacturing and consumer goods, almost everyone in America has some level of PFAS in their blood. It is used to make food packaging, stain-resistant clothing, cosmetics, firefighting foam and hundreds of other products.

Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said there is an estimated 9,000 manmade PFAS in existence, a figure that keeps increasing as scientists learn more about the compounds and industry continues to invent more of them.

Scientists are also learning more about the human health effects caused by PFAS, including a potential link to cancer, neurodevelopment disorders, suppression of the immune system and harm to the thyroid, liver, pancreas, kidneys and reproductive organs. PFAS have been dubbed  “forever chemicals” because they accumulate in the blood and don’t break down easily.

Major concern in North Carolina

In North Carolina, more than 1 million people whose drinking water comes from the Cape Fear River watershed — including the Cape Fear River, Jordan Lake and the Haw River — are believed to have elevated levels of PFAS in their blood serum. Blood samples taken from people living in Pittsboro and Wilmington found much higher levels of certain types of PFAS in those residents than in the U.S. as a whole.

Birnbaum, DeWitt and EWG scientists said during the briefing that newly approved vaccines for COVID-19 may not work as well on people with elevated PFAS levels. Birnbaum said people with high levels of PFAS could be moved up the priority list and get a COVID-19 vaccine sooner, and they may need a booster shot to maintain the vaccine’s efficacy.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is said to be studying a potential intersection between PFAS and the coronavirus.

Other studies have already made a connection. In Denmark, researchers took blood samples and measured PFAS levels of 323 people who had been infected with the coronavirus. The research found that people who had detectable levels of a certain type of PFAS — one called pentafluorobenzoic acid, or PFBA — were about twice as likely to contract a severe form of COVID-19.

The study, which had not been peer-reviewed, suggests that PFBA accumulates in the lungs, where COVID-19 typically causes the most damage. The researchers wrote that they found their discovery surprising because PFBA is a shorter-chain PFAS that leaves the body quickly compared to its longer-chain cousins.

Like many other forms of forever chemicals, PFBA is a concern in North Carolina, especially in the Cape Fear River basin. Samples of drinking water collected by cities and the N.C. PFAS Network found the compound throughout the basin.

Data provided by the Fayetteville Public Works Commission show levels of PFBA at more than 24 parts per trillion in Fayetteville on Oct. 7, 2019. Subsequent quarterly readings were in single digits. In some samples, the chemical was not detected.

The compound was also reported in Sanford’s water at 18.5 parts per trillion; in Pittsboro’s water at 8.1 parts per trillion; and for water serving Wilmington and New Hanover County at 4.16 parts per trillion after filtration.

Although those numbers may seem high — DeWitt said “all levels of PFAS in drinking water concern me” — they are nowhere near the levels found in Minnesota. That state has set a health value for PFBA at 7,000 parts per trillion.

North Carolina has not set health goals for any PFAS except GenX, at 140 parts per trillion.

Environmentalists laud Regan 

Shortly after the briefing concluded, environmental groups began lauding Biden’s selection of Regan as the next EPA administrator. Regan has been a driving force behind Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order to reduce the state’s carbon footprint by 40 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.

Regan has also worked to force the Chemours Fayetteville Works chemical plant to stop polluting the air and the Cape Fear River with PFAS.

“With Michael Regan, President-elect Biden continues adding to his historically qualified and diverse Cabinet, replacing a fossil fuel industry puppet with an experienced EPA air quality scientist, just as Gov. Cooper did when he put Regan in charge of our DEQ four years ago,” Dan Crawford of the NC League of Conservation Voters said in a statement.

Before going to work for the Cooper administration, Regan served as the Environmental Defense Fund’s Southeast regional director.

Hawley Truax, who holds that position today, said in a statement that Regan has “led a complex state agency with a positive spirit and a steady hand for the past four years. He’s been a collaborative, energizing force, putting into action his core belief that when you make decisions with input from a diverse group of stakeholders your outcomes are better and more durable because of it.”

Andrew Hutson, executive director of Audubon North Carolina, said Regan “understands the monumental challenges we face from our changing climate.”

“He spearheaded North Carolina’s Clean Energy Plan, laying the groundwork for a cleaner and more resilient future in our state, and is a tireless champion for clean air and water,” Hutson said. “He’s an outstanding leader, dedicated public servant and more than qualified to lead our country’s top environmental agency. We’re sad to see him leave North Carolina, but our loss is the nation’s gain.”

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