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GenX: The Tale Of Two Studies

GenX and the water has been burned into Wilmington’s consciousness for almost two months now. State and local agencies continue to test and analyze the region’s water supply. The Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.–based non-profit, non-partisan organization focused on health and the environment, just released a drinking water database. It includes data from the Cape Fear region.

Here's a closer look at what this new database has and doesn’t have.

The database launched by the Environmental Working Group last week lets anyone type in a zip code, and find out what’s in the water. With this National Tap Water Database, you can also sign up for email alerts, and the latest news relating to drinking water.

But you won’t find find GenX, when you type in a Wilmington zip code.

"Right now, we’re looking at the unregulated contaminant monitoring list that is provided by the EPA, they are supposed to update it every five years…..” 

Dr. Susanne Brander is studying the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, looking at lists of chemicals and byproducts. She’s a UNC-Wilmington toxicologist.

“The newer compounds like GenX, and the other perflourinated ether compounds that were detected in the study led by Dr. Knappe, are not yet on this list and the jury is still out on whether they will be included on the update..."

'Now is this something that the EWG is pulling their information from?’

"Yeah, so the information in the EWG’s database is all being gathered from this list.   I will emphasize that there are many other contaminants of concern that are not included on this list.”

Dr. Detleff Knappe, the North Carolina State University professor who helped make GenX a household word here in the region, has explored the EWG tap water database.

“They basically for Wilmington for example they have 10 contaminants that they detected above the health guidelines.”

‘So how many are left out?’

“Well that’s a million dollar question. Certainly left out were all of the compounds that we’re discussing these days – GenX and the other fluorinated ethers, beyond that it gets pretty challenging because we just don’t know what else might be in the water.”

What’s included in the EWG list are things common in many drinking water systems across the country.

“The database itself a lot of it are the disinfection byproducts. There is bromate, bromodicholoromethane, and chloroform, Dibromochloromethane, Dichloroacetic acid, total trihalomethanes, Trichloroacetic acid. All of those are disinfection byproducts, and every drinking water around the country will have them.”

That’s not to sell the EWG tool short. The organization put two years of effort into its creation. David Andrews is a senior scientist with the EWG.

“We have water testing results for over 50,000 utilities across the country. To collect the data we went to all 50 states, and DC, the health and water authorities, and collated the results from all the utilities within their jurisdiction.”

Andrews says their work was affected by what others have, and have not, tested for...

"GenX is not listed in the report, or the database, and that brings up an interesting point in terms of we’re really limited to what these utilities have tested for. And so these utilities have a set list of contaminants, often mandated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Occasionally there’s unregulated contaminants that their testing for, but GenX is not a chemical that is standard, in terms of testing, and there is really no information about its occurrence in drinking water across the country except for the tests in the Cape Fear River basin…..” 

Dr. Brander is a supporter of the Environmental Working Group’s efforts.

“It’s a great tool and I will say that I really appreciate the Environmental Working Group’s efforts to point out these types of issues. They also have great tools to find out which fruits and vegetables are more likely to have certain types of pesticides.  But the list is by no means all-inclusive."

Disinfection of water, ironically, creates byproducts that can create illnesses. Including cancer. Again, Dr. Knappe.

“When it comes to disinfection we basically make this trade-off. We say, well, if we chlorinate water we prevent water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid fever and so on."

“But one thing that we accept in return, is that there is this chronic cancer risk that comes from the disinfection byproduct and that’s basically what the majority of the compounds are on this EWG website when it comes to the CFPUA water for example.”

When it comes to water… there will always be a risk.

“We can’t have water that has no risk. So there is this damned if you do, damned if you don’t piece to it. So we trade one very acute risk for a much lower risk.”

‘How do you think this story is going to end?’

“It’s a good question. The problem is at the federal level. This isn’t just a problem for the state of North Carolina. For all these unregulated compounds, particularly perflourinated compounds, I can’t predict the future, if I could and it was my ideal version, we would have a better ability to regulate these types of chemicals at the federal level."

“The EPA is often blamed for these problems. But then at the same time, we’re taking the resources away from them that they need to actually do anything about these issues.”

That holds true for GenX and the discharges from Chemours upstream, as well as what’s listed in the EWG Tap Water database.

“It’s terrible that people have been drinking this compound for what we can tell several decades at this point, but in the long run this discovery will hopefully spur further research and further improvements to current technologies for treating drinking water.”