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GenX: What's In The Drinking Water Supply?

Image By David Dewitt

A chemical replacement for a key ingredient in Teflon linked to cancer and a host of other ailments has been found in the drinking water system of the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. 

Known commercially as GenX, the contaminating compound is made by the Chemours Co. at Fayetteville Works, an industrial site straddling the Cumberland-Bladen county line along the Cape Fear River, about 100 miles upstream from Wilmington.

The GenX compound is not regulated, in part because it’s so new.

“We don’t know enough now to regulate this appropriately.”

Dr. Larry Cahoon is with the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

“If it’s not regulated that means we may not have the legal authority to prohibit discharging that material.”

He says testing needs to be done by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“It’s EPA. These are by federal regulations under the Clean Water Act. EPA does not have the resources to test the parade of new chemicals that are coming out of year. They have never had the resources to do that.”

And Cahoon says it’s part of a bigger issue.

“This is a symptom of a much broader problem we have, which is that there are so many new compounds out there that aren’t going to be tested quickly or will never be tested, that we’re basically living in a chemical soup.”

For the region’s water suppliers, it came as a surprise.

“We just heard about it yesterday when we saw it in the StarNews.”

Tyler Wittkofsky is with H2GO, which provides water to about 25,000 people in Brunswick County.

“We were a little shocked. But the Cape Fear River has always been vulnerable to these types of contaminants.”

Wittkofsky says customers have been calling all day, asking if they can drink the water. His response:

“We’re not saying that the water is not safe to drink, but, we’re also not saying that it is safe. We’re waiting for the word to come down from state and federal regulators to let us know.”

Brunswick County’s department of environmental health didn’t know about GenX either, until they were told by WHQR Thursday morning. They are now looking into it as well.

City and County officials hope to get more answers on Thursday. That’s when they meet with the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and the Chemours Company – the firm discharging GenX into the river.

“The question I hope to pose in plain and simple terms to this company is, is our water safe to drink – yes or no.”

That’s New Hanover County Commissioner Chairman Woody White.

“This company, which has a history, good and bad the record would reflect, of compiling and accumulating data, about things that it makes and disperses into the environment, has scientific data. If they come here and share that and quells our concerns then that’s a very positive thing. If they don’t, then it’s going to be a very serious matter.”

Also today, Gov. Roy Cooper emailed a statement to WHQR, saying that clean water is a necessity for families and businesses in the Cape Fear region. He added that he has asked the Department of Environmental Quality to work with the Department of Health and Human Services and local officials to get to the bottom of this issue, and to demand answers from the EPA and Chemours.

Dupont began offering Gen X to its customers in 2009.  Its used in the production of Teflon and most other nonstick kitchen utensils. C-8 was a bad chemical in that it was proven to be extremely toxic. 

Dr. Susanne Brander is a UNCWilmington toxicologist. 

"The big question now is that this is all related to C8and this has been very studied and in a lot of detail with C8 and how much of that transfers to GenX and what we know about Gen X is that they've taken the C8 molecule and they tried to make it a little bit less persistent."

What she means is that Gen X was designed to move through the body faster than C-8 with the idea being it would cause less damage. However there are no tests that prove that. Not yet.
Dr. Larry Calhoon of UNC Wilmington is a professor of biology. 

"I'm not trying to frighten people but I'm trying to point out that there's so much we do not know -- that if we're going to be appropriate in howwe respond to this we need to have an excess of caution."

Scientists hope that when the new water test results from the river come back showing more accurate levels of Gen X they can get a better grasp on the risk this chemical poses to human health.