By Will Atwater
A thousand residents living in the Cape Fear region have PFAS in their bloodstream, according to the long-awaited results of a blood-sampling study performed by local researchers.
On Oct. 18, researchers from NC State University announced the results of a multi-year study that involved analyzing blood samples of 1,020 participants across three communities in the Cape Fear Region for GenX. Roughly, half of the participants in the GenX Exposure Study live in the lower Cape Fear region (New Hanover and Brunswick Counties), while the other participants reside in the upper Cape Fear Basin (Fayetteville and Pittsboro), according to the report which was published online and presented via webinar.
One important distinction among study participants is that Fayetteville participants receive their drinking water from wells, while the other participants rely on municipal water for their water supply.
These results come even as North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein has seven pending lawsuits against per – and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) manufacturers. Six of the lawsuits target aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) manufacturers and one targets the Chemours Fayetteville Works Industrial site which was the source of contamination in the lower Cape Fear.
The new study findings bolster Stein’s argument that PFAS manufacturers are harming North Carolina citizens. And with action by the EPA Administrator Michael Regan, whose agency established the Strategic Roadmap, an approach to address PFAS contamination, it feels like people who are pushing back against PFAS contamination might be going on the offensive against industry instead of always playing catch-up, as they have for years.
The origin of ‘forever chemicals’
In the last several weeks, PFAS headlines have been a constant fixture in state and national news.
Since 2017, when GenX, a class of PFAS, were discovered in the Cape Fear River Basin downstream of Chemours Fayetteville Works site, the toxic compounds have been one of the most discussed environmental issues in North Carolina and beyond.
Starting in the 1940s, PFAS — also referred to as “forever chemicals,” due to their persistence in the environment and the human body — have been used in the manufacturing of oil and water-resistant products, as well as products that resist heat and reduce friction.There are more than 12,000 different PFAS compounds used in products such as non-stick cookware, cosmetics, cleaning products, water-resistant clothing and textiles, and firefighting foam, along with firefighting turnout gear.
What’s more, researchers have found evidence that suggests a link between PFAS exposure and weaker antibody responses against infections in adults and children, elevated cholesterol levels, decreased infant and fetal growth, and kidney cancer in adults.
Some key findings from the study are that while there were GenX compounds found in previous water samples in these communities, there were no GenX compounds present in the blood samples, said Jane Hoppin, NCSU epidemiologist and lead study researcher. GenX is the PFAS that was manufactured most widely at Fayetteville Works in recent years and that has been found in the Cape Fear River.
“The fact that we can’t measure Gen X in people’s bodies today means that we can’t measure it in you today,” Hoppin told NC Health News in 2021. “It doesn’t mean that you haven’t been exposed in the past.”
What Hoppin and her team have been able to determine from all their testing is that GenX doesn’t stick around in human bodies for as long as older chemicals in the same class. But she said that doesn’t mean GenX’s passage through those bodies is benign. Like alcohol, which is ingested and then passes through the body quickly, Hoppin said GenX exposure could lead to health problems over time.
Additionally, PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS and PFNA, also referred to as legacy compounds, “which are found in most people in the U.S.,” according to Hoppin, were present across all samples at a rate higher than the national average.
The report also said the sources of PFAS in the Cape Fear River Basin were from textile and furniture manufacturing, sludge from wastewater treatment plants used as fertilizer, the use of firefighting foam at airports and the Fayetteville Works facility.
Mounting a case against PFAS
Last month, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein filed two new lawsuits against the manufacturers of aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), a fire suppressant that contains PFAS compounds. According to the press release, the companies named in the suits are DuPont, Chemours and 3M. One suit “relates to contamination at the Piedmont-Triad International Airport.” The other suits target “contamination at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station New River,” according to the press release issued at the time.
Stein’s seven pending PFAS-related lawsuits signal an aggressive stance toward manufacturers who, he says, prioritize profits above all else.
“In our filing with the court, we allege that these companies that made firefighting foam knew well how dangerous it was to our first responders and our natural resources,” he said. “But they continued to sell this product to line their pockets at the expense of our health and our drinking water. It’s wrong and unlawful, so I’m taking them to court and will fight to make sure they clean up the mess they made.”
Stein’s aggressive stance against corporate AFFF manufacturers seems to fall in line with EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s 2021 Strategic Roadmap “to confront PFAS contamination nationwide,” according to the press release.
“For far too long, families across America – especially those in underserved communities – have suffered from PFAS in their water, their air, or in the land their children play on,” Regan said. “This comprehensive, national PFAS strategy will deliver protections to people who are hurting, by advancing bold and concrete actions that address the full lifecycle of these chemicals.”
Stein talks PFAS
Stein said his previous experience suing other industries, such as opioid manufacturers, has informed his approach to the PFAS litigation.
“Companies knew or should have known that the products they were manufacturing and selling were dangerous, and then engaged in misrepresentations or failing to warn purchasers about the risks,” he said. “They need to be held accountable for what they did.”
He said that the point of lawsuits against opioid manufacturers, for instance, is to make companies pay to clean up the messes they’ve made.
“Whether it’s pollution, or whether it’s the damage to people suffering with drug addiction, we also want to change the way [the companies] do business, so that it doesn’t happen again,” Stein said. That’s part of his impetus behind suing companies making the firefighting foams, too.
At this point, the original four PFAS cases have been brought into the national multinational district litigation in U.S. District Court before a federal judge.
“There’s actually going to be an important trial next summer called a bellwether trial,” Stein said. “How that case goes will be very impactful into how my litigation against these manufacturers goes. And then the two most recent cases I just filed — the one in Greensboro and the one at Camp Lejeune — will very likely be pulled into that same multidistrict litigation.”
The first case Stein’s office filed against DuPont and Chemours for discharging GenX into the Cape Fear River is at the North Carolina Supreme Court on a litigation issue. He said that trial is on hold until these issues get resolved, but they were resolved in his office’s favor in a lower court.
Stein’s office worked to negotiate a 2018 consent order between Chemours and the state, where Chemours agreed to stop all discharges and emissions of PFAS, to remediate contamination in the groundwater, and to control future air emissions and reduce them by over 99 percent.
The consent order, which was updated in 2019, also forced the company to provide alternative drinking water to the homes of affected people and also pay a $12 million penalty.
“The private sector needs to be transparent about what it’s doing and responsible in the decisions it makes in order to minimize the risk to the public,” he said, ”but the public sector needs to put in place clear rules that ensure the health and safety of people.”
Along those lines, the EPA is getting ready to establish standards for GenX and other PFAS in drinking water that will signal to municipal water managers what are permissible levels.
“I think the federal government can really help us whether it’s setting standards for water and air … or when it comes to clothing and textiles,” he said. “There are agencies out there that, I think, can play an important role setting standards,” he said.