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By Greg Barnes
Mike Watters saved the second report from N.C. State University’s Pets and Equine Testing Survey for last.
Two of Watters’ beloved Siberian huskies had participated in the study. While both had health issues, Watters said, they were much more pronounced in Cesar.
Watters said he started noticing the problems a year and a half after his family moved in 2012 to a home about a mile from the Chemours Fayetteville Works chemical plant in Bladen County.
Cesar continually lost his hair and got sores on his back. He had numerous fatty tumors, and, later in life, developed a pancreatic disorder and other gastrointestinal issues, Watters said.
Cesar died in March at age 13, shortly after researchers at N.C. State tested his blood for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS or “forever chemicals.”
Watters knew that his well water had long been contaminated with PFAS that floated out of the chemical plant’s vent stacks and fell with the rain on his property. Now he was about to find out if those same chemicals had accumulated in Cesar and his brother, Loki.
N.C. State researchers had taken blood samples from 31 dogs and 35 horses that live near Chemours and analyzed them for the presence of 34 types of PFAS. Watters recently received the results.
He said he opened Loki’s report first. Loki’s PFAS readings were high, but Watters said they were in line with what he expected.
“And then I opened up Cesar’s and saw 11,800 parts per trillion and I busted down crying,” Watters said. “That absolutely struck me. I mean that was like a stab in the heart.”
North Carolina and the federal government do not regulate PFAS, which are commonly used to make everyday products water, grease and stain-resistant. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a health advisory level for only two of the oldest types of PFAS — perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) — at 70 parts per trillion, either by themselves or in combination.
The total PFAS concentration in Cesar’s blood was 169 times higher than the EPA’s health advisory for PFOA and PFOS.
N.C. State researcher Scott Belcher, an associate professor in the university’s biological sciences department, presented the PETS study findings to community members during a video conference Thursday evening.
As he did, Belcher emphasized that the study can only tell participants how much of each PFAS analyzed was present in their pets’ blood on the day the samples were taken. The results, he said, cannot tell if any past, current or future health problems of the animals may be related to the PFAS exposure. He said N.C. State plans to expand testing in the future.
Most of the dogs and horses tested came from Gray’s Creek, a rural community in Cumberland County near Chemours where more than 4,900 private drinking wells have been found to exceed the levels of PFAS specified in a consent order the chemical company entered into in 2019.
The consent order requires Chemours to provide homeowners with water filtration systems if the level of a single PFAS measures more than 10 parts per trillion, or if a combination of different PFAS exceed 70 parts per trillion.
As of April 19, the levels of PFAS in wells that exceeded those parameters were found to extend 18 miles from the plant, according to the most recent findings cited by the state Department of Environmental Quality. That is six miles farther than what was previously known.
Chemours contends that the levels of PFAS found in Gray’s Creek are not enough to pose a health risk.
A vet’s concerns
Kim Krivit, a veterinarian at North Star Veterinary Hospital in the neighboring Parkton community, has been treating pets from Gray’s Creek for years. Krivit said she does not track where the animals come from, so she doesn’t know whether she is seeing more or different diseases in animals from Gray’s Creek than from other areas.
Krivit said she has no evidence suggesting that PFAS are causing diseases in the animals from Gray’s Creek. But she has her suspicions.
“It’s like logic,” Krivit said. “Absolutely I believe there are greater chances of there being something” to cause diseases in animals with high PFAS levels.
Studies on laboratory animals have found that elevated levels of exposure to PFAS can damage the liver and the immune system and cause kidney and testicular cancers, birth defects, delayed development, newborn deaths, decreased vaccine response and increased cholesterol levels. Studies on the effects in humans remain inconclusive but some have linked the substances to many of the same diseases.The EPA calls PFOA a possible human carcinogen.
Chloe, a “spunky little thing”
Among the animals Krivit treated was Chloe, a little pomeranian that also died shortly before the study results were revealed. Chloe lived with Audrey Napier on John McMillan Road, about 5 miles northwest of Chemours, for about 15 years.
“She was this spunky little thing,” Napier said. “Oh goodness, she was a happy dog. Never complained. She loved getting groomed. She knew she was pretty when she came back with those bows in her hair. She would just prance around.
“You could pick her up and she gave you kisses all the time, and we miss her dearly. I’m going to start crying now.”
Chloe was happy despite a lifetime of diseases. Krivit said she suffered early on from kidney disease, followed by heart problems, Cushing’s disease, diabetes and pancreatitis.
The PETS study found total PFAS in Chloe’s blood measuring 743 parts per trillion. That is low compared with the levels detected in Watters’ dogs and some other animals in the study. The total PFAS level in Bruiser, a 12-year-old male labradoodle that lives with Karen Miller on Sim Canady Road, measured 14,563 parts per trillion.
Watters has worked tirelessly to get PFAS information out to Gray’s Creek residents. He is the administrator of a Facebook group that educates residents in the community. Watters thinks two of his dogs – Cesar and another husky named Zeus that died before the testing — had such high concentrations of PFAS because they loved to go outside and lay under vegetation when it rained. Loki, whose total PFAS level measured about four times lower than Cesar’s, didn’t like the rain, Watters said.
PFAS detected in all 31 dogs
Belcher, the N.C. State researcher, said PFAS were detected in all 31 of the dogs tested, and at least two different types were found in every dog. One dog was found to have 12 of the 34 types of PFAS tested. The PFAS called GenX, once so prevalent in the Cape Fear River downstream of Chemours, was not detected in any of the dogs or horses.
Perfluoroalkyl sulfonic acids — PFOS and PFHxS — accounted for 90 percent of the PFAS found in dogs, Belcher said. American companies phased out the use of PFOS by 2015, but the substance does not break down easily in the environment and accumulates in animals and humans. That is why PFAS have become known as “forever chemicals.”
Belcher said the study found that the median serum amount in dogs was three times higher than that of horses and that dogs had a higher number of different PFAS in their blood. For horses, he said, one was found to have no PFAS in its blood and 13 different PFAS were detected in the blood of at least one horse.
Although Belcher cautions against using the PETS study to suggest a causal relationship between an animal’s PFAS levels and disease, the researcher has found that one may exist in alligators and fish in the Cape Fear River.
His studies on striped bass, which contain high levels of PFAS, conclude that the substances may be disrupting reproduction. Belcher is now concentrating on other fish and their potential effects on human consumption, in addition to expanding his work on testing pets in the Gray’s Creek area.
Meanwhile, N.C. State researcher Jane Hoppin said in an email that she hopes to have results of a PFAS exposure study on Gray’s Creek residents available to participants by late June.
Researchers have taken blood, water and urine samples from up to 230 people living in the area to measure PFAS levels as part of the university’s GenX Exposure Study. Hoppin is the study’s lead investigator and deputy director of N.C. State’s Center for Human Health and the Environment.
A much more limited study of 30 people living in the Gray’s Creek area found in 2018 that some types of PFAS were detected at levels higher than the U.S. population. A larger study of Wilmington residents drew similar conclusions.
N.C. State has also been awarded a three-year, $242,000 grant to study the potential presence of PFAS in hog waste.