“It’s a horrible story” — Officials, advocates decry the hazards of PFAS at N.C. summit

By: - October 24, 2019 2:05 pm

Image: Adobe Stock

Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear: “We need health data. Doctors can’t tell us what our risks are.” (Photo: Clean Cape Fear)

The chemicals that corporate titans Chemours, DuPont and 3M are manufacturing today will likely outlive you. 

They will most certainly outlive everyone who attended this week’s summit on per-fluorinated and poly-fluorinated compounds. Collectively known as PFAS, there are thousands of these compounds, and the few that researchers studied have proven to be toxic to humans, with links to thyroid disorders, testicular and kidney cancer, depressed immune system, low birth weight, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure during pregnancy.

PFAS don’t degrade. They remain in the environment for decades, generations even, tainting everything they touch.

“I can’t think of any environmentally persistent chemicals that were benign,” said Patrick Breyesse, director of the National Center on Environmental Health, a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “They move into one of our most critical resources: water. It affects our whole society.”

The two-day event was co-sponsored by a think tank, the Research Triangle Environmental Health Collaborative, and the NCPFAST Network, six universities whose research is funded by the state legislature through the NC Policy Collaboratory.

Researchers, state environmental officials, attorneys, legislators, environmental advocates, including people who’ve drunk contaminated water for decades: They all gathered to intellectually wrestle with one of the most pressing environmental and public health issues of the 21st century.

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Of the government presenters, Breyesse was the most startling and candid. “We don’t have enough information to answer people’s questions,” he said. “I hear from mothers whose blood levels [of PFAS] are low, but their child’s is off the charts. The mothers are transferring the body burden to their nursing child. It’s a horrible story.

“People who have been drinking contaminated water for 40, 50 years — there’s tremendous outrage,” he added. “And I find it totally understandable.”

Many states, federal health officials, local governments and military bases — the latter because of contaminated drinking water from firefighting foam that contains PFAS — are studying the extent of the pollution in the environment and in our bodies.

However, for these studies, “we don’t have an unexposed group,” for comparison, Breyesse said. An estimated 100 million Americans — a third of the total US population — has been exposed through drinking water. “We’re drinking it everywhere,” Breyesse said.

And of the 5,000-plus compounds, Breyesse’s lab is monitoring only 18.

Some people might be more exposed than others, based on where they live and their buying habits: the compounds are also found in microwave popcorn bags, fast food packaging, photo paper, Teflon pans, waterproof clothing, paints and shampoo.

In fact, said Barbara Turpin, UNC professor of environmental sciences and engineering, PFAS exposure is often higher in indoor air than outside because of carpets and upholstery that have been treated with stain-resistant products containing the compounds.

Barbara Turpin, professor and chairwoman of UNC Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (Photo: UNC)

The federal government has not established health-based thresholds to help researchers determine if people have too much of the compound in their bodies. “We can tell people only how they compare to others. How typical or atypical are you?” Breyesse said.

Chemours, DuPont and 3M often cite the lack of regulation as political and legal cover for their discharges of PFAS into the environment. (Chemours also gave a presentation at the summit, but it omitted any mention of health issues and discharges; instead, the company lauded the modern uses for fluoroproducts.)

While the EPA hasn’t established legally enforceable maximum contaminant levels for these emerging compounds, there are still laws that restrict, and in some cases prohibit their discharge.

“It’s dangerous when the public conversation is about ‘unregulated chemicals,’” said Geoff Gisler, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. 

For example, the state has groundwater rules for substances that are not naturally occurring, including PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane, the latter of which is a likely carcinogen and has been found at astronomical levels in the Cape Fear River Basin. 

Even without a federal maximum standard for these compounds, if they’re detected in the groundwater above trace amounts, that’s a violation. This is why DEQ could cite Chemours for groundwater violations, as the agency did in 2018. 

Facilities also have to disclose what pollutants they’re discharging into waterways, under their federal permits. (Known as NPDES permits —short for National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System — they are administered by the state.) 

Under the Clean Water Act, a pollutant is defined broadly as “any type of industrial, municipal, and agricultural waste discharged into water.” So under the Act, PFAS and other emerging compounds in most cases must be accounted for. 

And through their discharges, industries can’t legally cause wastewater treatment plants to violate their NPDES permits. In the case of 1,4-Dioxane, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has said publicly that it is considering an enforcement action against the cities of Greensboro and Reidsville for recent discharges of the compound into Haw River tributaries. However, the cities, in turn, could sue or fine the industrial facilities that caused them to violate their permit.

Upstream pollution routinely contaminates the Haw River, Pittsboro’s water supply.

“We have a lot of data about the Haw,” said Emily Sutton, the Haw Riverkeeper. “When people who are on Pittsboro water ask me, I tell them the water is not safe to drink.”

Elevated levels of 1,4-Dioxane and PFAS have been found in the Lower Cape Fear River as well, and in treated drinking water from the utilities in that area. Chemours is a main source of PFAS, but there could be others responsible for the 1,4-Dioxane.

“It’s a heavy burden to keep putting on our bodies,” said Emily Donovan, co-founder of the citizens’ advocacy group Clean Cape Fear. “We deal with our own sources of contamination and then we still deal have to deal with them with further upstream.”

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.