‘Forever chemicals’ could be found in more than 1 million NC residents’ drinking water

October 26, 2020 in News, Video by RBN Staff

source:  newsobserver

UPDATED OCTOBER 25, 2020 10:35 AM

Actor Mark Ruffalo was joined by legislators and community members to call for action against Chemours and DuPont, including legislation that advocates say would better protect the public against chemicals found in their drinking water. 

Compounds known as forever chemicals are likely contaminating the source of drinking water for more than a million North Carolina residents by running from the Haw River into the Cape Fear River, Duke University researchers said during a virtual forum Saturday.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, are man-made compounds that are resistant to water and grease. Some PFAS have been linked with a wide range of health effects from thyroid disease to high cholesterol to lower birth weight, as well as some cancers.

Heather Stapleton, a Duke environmental chemist, has been leading a team of researchers investigating PFAS in Pittsboro. During her Saturday presentation, Stapleton said the levels of some PFAS in 49 blood samples her team took from Pittsboro residents were very similar to those an N.C. State-led team took from Wilmington residents in 2017 and 2018 in the wake of revelations about the release of GenX by Chemours, a company spun off by the chemical giant DuPont.

“The source of their water is the same, which is likely why these two patterns are so similar. This also suggests that any communities pulling drinking water between Pittsboro and Wilmington, particularly from the Cape Fear River, are likely to have similar exposures,” Stapleton said Saturday.

The Wilmington samples found a median level of PFOA, a chemical also known as C8, of just under 5 parts per billion. Samples taken from 49 Pittsboro residents in late 2019 were around 6 ppb, while follow-up samples in early 2020 had a median of around 5 ppb.

Concentrations of several PFAS found in Pittsboro and Wilmington residents are higher than national averages recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national biomonitoring program.


The Duke team used a computer model that started with measurements taken from the Haw River in 2013, calculated the half-life of PFAS compounds that were in that study and also accounted for average daily drinking water consumption. The estimated concentrations of PFAS from the model were very close to those found in Pittsboro residents’ blood.

“It does lead us to believe that this is very likely a result of drinking-water exposure, and that drinking water is likely the primary exposure for PFAS in Pittsboro,” Stapleton said.

The health effects of PFAS exposure in Pittsboro are hard to determine, Stapleton said, but she hopes to work with N.C. State’s Jane Hoppin to look at health effects in the future, particularly thyroid dissease and immune function. Hoppin’s lab is conducting exposure studies elsewhere in Cape Fear basin.

Researchers have detected the presence of PFAS molecules in the Haw River and in Pittsboro’s drinking water for years. According to a presentation Duke and N.C. State professors prepared for Pittsboro officials, PFAS compounds along the Haw River tend to be smaller than some of their counterparts and levels of some chemicals tend to rise just beyond the East Burlington Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Tests have also shown elevated levels of 1,4-dioxane, a solvent the EPA has called a likely human carcinogen, in the Haw River.

It is difficult to remove PFAS chemicals from raw drinking water, and Pittsboro is in the process of evaluating an array of options that would help it better remove the chemicals from the Haw’s water before passing it along to customers. Pittsboro is the only municipality that draws raw water directly from the Haw.


This week, the Haw River Assembly and Southern Environmental Law Center announced that they have reached an agreement with the City of Burlington that would see the city check its industrial dischargers for the presence of PFAS and 1,4-dioxane to determine the source of the contaminants. The city will also test its wastewater treatment plant sludge for the compounds.

In a release announcing the agreement, Bob Patterson, Burlington’s director of water resources, said the city’s wastewater remains in compliance with permit requirements set by the EPA and N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, but acknowledged that unregulated concerns can arise.

“We are proactively working to try to identify these sources and minimize the discharge of these chemicals,” Patterson said in a recorded video message.

Burlington also said it will post all sampling results on the city’s website. Tests will include targeted analysis for specific compounds and non-targeted analysis to detemine how much total matter is in the wastewater.

Stapleton said Saturday that while some PFAS seemed to be coming from wastewater treatment flows around Burlington, that wasn’t true for all of the chemicals. The Duke professor cited PFOS as a chemical that seems to be coming from somewhere above Burlington on the Haw River.

“This needs more attention and more sampling to understand where those other PFAS are coming from,” Stapleton said.