GenX: Two Years Burning Down The Road

Jul 25, 2019

GenX, PFAS and Chemours are part of the lexicon in the Cape Fear region. It’s been that way for two years, since the general public first heard about chemicals in the area’s drinking water supply. In part one of our series, WHQR takes a look at how it started, and where we are today. 

On June 7, 2017, it was 70 degrees in Wilmington. That’s relatively cool for a late spring day in the Cape Fear Region.

That day the StarNews had a page one story, on something called GenX. Things would heat up. It would dominate the news cycle for months.

(voxpop of local newscasts)

GenX, a compound long used in the production of Teflon and many other products. It got into the water from the Chemours plant in Fayetteville.

It’s a man-made, unregulated chemical in a family of chemicals called PFAS.

Manufacturing companies use these chemicals to make products that are resistant to water, stains and grease. These include nonstick cookware, water repellent, food wrappers, cleaning products, fire-fighting foam and many others. As area residents learned more about these chemicals, they became vocal.

(voxpop – chanting)

“Shame Shame Shame. Hey Hey, GenX has got to Go. GenX has got to go Hey Hey … ”

GenX is a byproduct of the process of manufacturing the products.

This and other PFAS can get into water and air around the factories that use or dispose of these chemicals and sometimes persist through wastewater treatment systems.

It was in the Cape Fear River, and in the treated water from The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. The water people cook with, drink, bathe in, and use to water their gardens.

“It's been a heck of a two years, Huh? This whole GenX story was, in a perverse way the gift that keeps on giving.”

Larry Cahoon is a professor of biology and marine biology at UNCW. He says there are a lot of chemicals and chemical byproducts to be concerned about.

“And so the challenge of identifying all the byproducts is quite significant. Some of these are chemicals that we may never have seen before. In other words, they're unknown to science. We're not sure yet, but that's the nature of byproducts. You get all these different reactions generating all different compounds while they're trying to make a compound of interest. And the byproducts of course, are not required to be tested for toxicity, only the commercial products because those are the things you ship. We know very little about the byproducts and there's reason to believe that quite a few of them are likely to be problematic for human health and ecosystem health.”

The impact on human health. That’s been the big question these last two years. Is the water safe? It’s an important question because Chemours upriver had been dumping its wastewater into the river for not just years – but decades.

It’s that concern that got Emily Donovan involved. The local mother of two co-founded the Clean Cape Fear group. She is alarmed and concerned.

“It's more than just GenX. It's more than just understanding that it's one or two bad chemicals. It's a class of highly toxic chemicals that the industry is trying to prove is not toxic. Without showing any information or basis of foundations of that they're using lack of information as their justification and that is irrational on so many levels.”

Local officials got involved. The city council, county commissioners. They pushed North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, and Chemours. Everyone wanted answers. Chemours didn’t say much. Emily Donovan went to Washington.

“I've been to DC three times now since August of last year. The first visit was to give a testimony and it was the first ever congressional PFAS hearing.”

She says despite interest on the part of Congress, there has not been any legislation passed that would prevent companies like Chemours from pouring wastewater laced with chemicals into waterways. And it’s not just a local problem. It’s an international one.

On the state level there is some progress. Thanks in part to pressure placed on Chemours, and a consent order signed by Chemours, the DEQ, and Cape Fear River Watch, contaminant levels in the river are not what they once were.

Linda Culpepper is the Director of Water Resources at DEQ.

“Well, from the water side, the levels we’re seeing in the drinking water facilities, they're all from our results from the EPA Athens lab are below the method reporting level. And that's been very consistent. Which is great. It's been a wonderful achievement in protecting the water.”

In an email to WHQR, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it is making progress as well.

EPA recently released what it calls its PFAS Action Plan, to address a challenge like PFAS. EPA says it will propose a regulatory determination for PFAS by the end of this year and will work through the rulemaking process as quickly as possible.

EPA says to regulate a contaminant under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the agency must determine the contaminant has adverse health effects, occurs or is substantially likely to occur frequently at levels of health concern and there is a meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction.

Kemp Burdette is the Cape Fear River Keeper, and has been leading the charge for cleaner drinking water.

“There's a lot that we're learning still. You know, we're learning about additional sources of PFAS compounds upstream. In areas where they've been for years, where they've been for probably decades, but we're understanding more about kind of how those are entering our water supplies and we're, that we need to do more, to limit that.”

Recent research shows these chemicals are also in groundwater wells and in larger concentrations in the air. 

PART 2

Residents in the Cape Fear region have been exposed to a lot of science in the past two years – as officials and citizens try to understand more about PFAS, GenX, Chemours and what else is in the water. In part 2 of this week’s series, WHQR’s Vince Winkel takes a look … at science.

(MUX – “Blinded me with Science” fade under)

In 1982 Thomas Dolby wasn’t thinking about Chemours or GenX when he released ‘Blinded me with Science’ … but for the past two years in the Cape Fear region, science has been on the minds of a lot of people.

Chemistry, biology, geology, zoology, toxicology, pharmacology, epidemiology, genetics, biochemistry…

When the General Assembly began to discuss PFAS contamination in earnest, there were two camps.

One says: let’s ship more funds to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. This would allow them to better enforce permits, like the one allowing Chemours to release wastewater into the Cape Fear River. DEQ could write better permits and increase monitoring and enforcement.

The other camp focused on research. They ask:  where do the chemicals come from? How are they transported? How do they enter the body? What do they do to human and animal health?

Ultimately, the General Assembly went with funding more research, as opposed to Gov. Roy Cooper’s preference – funding for DEQ.

Thus was born the PFAS Testing Network, also called the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory. Six universities are now charged with getting to the bottom of PFAS contamination and finding solutions.

“We have some of the best scientific minds for North Carolina's universities with us this afternoon. I know I'm looking forward to hearing what they have to say….” (fade)

This month scientists and researchers from those six schools came to Wilmington to explain what they are working on, at a forum sponsored by the North Carolina Coastal Federation at UNCW.

The schools in the research network are Duke University, UNC Chapel Hill, N.C. State, UNC Charlotte, East Carolina, and UNCW.

Some have familiar names to Wilmingtonians, like Detleff Knappe of N.C. State. He did the initial research and discovered PFAS and GenX in the water supply here.  He says there’s money to study past issues and public drinking water sources statewide.

“One important aspect of the Wilmington story discovering the GenX here two years ago is that the North Carolina legislature provided funding to support university research to study past occurrence statewide and public drinking water sources.

And I think that's a very positive development that resulted directly from the Wilmington story and not just a focus on drinking water but also on other exposure routes like a food. What are impacts on aquatic life, trying to better understand some of the impacts on human health, and understanding sources or PFAS better.”

Knappe is focused on PFAS sampling and analysis.

Dr. Heather Stapleton of Duke is leading research on PFAS removal techniques.

“So some of the specific questions that we're trying to address are what's the best option to remove them from the drinking water for these commercially available membranes, ion exchange, these various resins that are often employed in drinking water utilities. What are the best choices and decisions to make, for including these, can they be optimized, etc. How can we remove them from certain waste streams?”

Stapleton’s team may design new types of membranes to use for water filtration systems.

State officials say this collaborative research model is the first of its kind in the United States.

One of the teams is focusing on well water research, which is timely given the recent reports of contaminated groundwater wells in some parts of New Hanover County and the high concentrations of PFAS found in wells around the Chemours facility upriver.

“We are trying to understand why some private wells, around and even many miles from the Chemours facility are contaminated with GenX and other related compounds.”

Jackie Macdonald-Gibson is a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at UNC Chapel Hill.

Of particular interest to her is how the wells are becoming contaminated.

“It's very unusual because historically when we think about contaminants in water and drinking water, especially in well water, we don't really think about them coming from the air.”

But they are coming from the air, adding a new dimension to the PFAS challenge.

“These GenX and related compounds are really unusual because what we're seeing is it looks like air is carrying these chemicals away from the industrial stacks and depositing them on the ground. Either just they settle out or deposit with the rain and then percolate through the soil again and get into the groundwater and then contaminate people's wells in that way.”

It’s important to note that much of this research is just getting underway, with any results months if not years away.

Adding to the science mix is the recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration report that states PFAS is found in foods that include grocery store meat, chicken, fish, lettuce and even chocolate cake. Where did that contamination come from?

Jamie DeWitt is with East Carolina University, and is working with the PFAS Network in applied research on possible health impacts.

She says most studies until now have been focused on water. Not food.

“So the bulk of our health data does come from drinking water exposures. But there are other epidemiological studies that have added to the database of PFAS health effects, that represent the general population and that people accumulate PFAS in their blood from many different sources of exposure which may have included contaminated water or food, dust, air or other sources.”

Research is underway across North Carolina. Meanwhile other states across the U.S. are ramping up to check their water supplies for PFAS contamination. Be it from a manufacturer unloading its wastewater into a river, into the air, or its potential appearance in sewage sludge and fertilizer, which usually comes from manufacturer’s wastewater sludge.

The EPA says it is taking a proactive, cross-agency approach with their PFAS Action Plan. They say they’ll release more details of it at the end of this year. 

Vince Winkel, WHQR News.