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GenX: The Water Heater Blues

Lawsuits against Chemours and parent company DuPont are starting to roll in. Leland resident Victoria Carey filed a class action lawsuit against DuPont and Chemours last week after discovering GenX in her water heater. Chemours is the maker of GenX, the contaminant found in the Cape Fear River, which provides the raw water the CFPUA and the Brunswick County Utilities Department uses for drinking water. 

In the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of North Carolina, the sludge collected from Victoria Carey’s water heater detected GenX at 857 parts per trillion in the top layer of sludge, and 623 parts per trillion in the bottom layer of sludge. Those are well above what the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services labels “safe.”  The complaint also states that Carey has been diagnosed with thyroid nodules and an idiopathic immune condition.

Tyler Wittkofsky of Brunswick Regional Water & Sewer H2GO says this latest case, involving a water heater, proves something.

“It goes to confirm that these materials are bioaccumulative, which is something the scientists have been saying is a real possibility.”

The majority of bioaccumulative substances in the environment are created through industry or are unintentional byproducts.

But if it’s in a water heater, would it be in the pipes as well?

“That’s a very good question. It’s hard to say if it would stick to the pipes, I guess it really depends on the material the pipes have in them.     I’ve heard a lot of people speculate that they are going to have to replace the piping, and with this suit that would be a good thing for Chemours to have to pay for.”

UNCW’s Larry Cahoon, a professor of biology, explains that the chemical compounds found in the sludge of a water heater, could be in the pipes and fixtures of a house as a durable type of biofilm.

“Biofilms which can form on any surface that’s wet, are particularly tough communities of microbes – mostly bacteria – but they secrete polysaccharides, nucopolysaccharides that anchor them to the substrate, anchor together the particles, the sediment particles, and create kind of a 3-D miniature habitat for all those different microbes to do their thing. And they are notorious in the medical community for causing very difficult infections in terms of treatment.”

… And these biofilms are sticky.

“GenX and these other compounds tend to stick to proteins.     And so you’ve got a sticky surface that’s being maintained by microbes and that sticky surface attracts these molecules.”

He adds, it’s hard to get rid of.

“Damn difficult. Here’s the thing, the biofilm has some depth to it – it’s not much – it’s a film, but at the molecular scale it’s very thick. So you think ‘well I’ll treat it with Clorox’ well here’s the problem: as chlorine or whatever oxidizer you use burns its way through that biofilm it’s being used up. So its effectiveness diminishes with time. You would have to load the water supply system with enough oxidizer whether that’s ozone or chlorine to oxidize the whole system from the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant to your tap.

“The problem with chlorine is, it’s toxic too. You don’t want too much in your water, I mean people object to the taste and the smell but it’s a toxin it oxidizes things.”

Steve Morrissey of Susman Godfrey is the co-counsel for the plaintiff in this suit. He discovered a similar issue in Flint, Michigan, with toxic materials in pipes in homes.

“Our belief is to make it safe for people going forward, what we need is a comprehensive in-home testing program and replacement of the pipes and fixtures for people who could be affected by this because of the significant potential health risks relating to this chemical.”

He says science supports the case.

“We do think there is a lot of evidence of wrongdoing and serious carelessness on DuPont’s part over the years, it’s pretty clear they haven’t been candid about what they have been doing with GenX over time. We’ve dug into the science quite a bit and the studies that DuPont and Chemours have relied on in defending GenX and we don’t think those hold up. There are similarities between GenX and other chemicals that DuPont’s had problems with in other areas of the country over the last several years.”

Chemours did not respond to repeated attempts for comment.