More NC utilities are detecting PFAS in drinking water, but some aren’t telling their customers

Lillington, Selma, Northampton-Lake Gaston, Jamestown the latest to report PFAS contamination

By: - September 27, 2023 12:27 pm
a child gets water from a kitchen tap

Photo: Cavan Images/Getty Images

Nearly a dozen public water systems in North Carolina, including four that had never previously reported PFAS in their drinking water, have detected levels of the toxic compound above the EPA’s proposed maximum contaminant level. And there is no state or federal requirement that these public water systems inform their customers of the results, leaving thousands of people unaware of what’s in their drinking water.

The recent reporting was required as part of the EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, also known as the UCMR. The EPA released the first set of data last month, representing 7% of all public water systems nationwide. The systems have until 2025 to report their findings to the agency.

These federal results do not include the roughly 50 water systems found to contain high levels of PFAS, as sampled by the state and academic researchers over the past five years.

PFAS stands for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances. There are upward of 12,000 types of these compounds, which are used in the chemical and manufacturing industries. The compounds are often called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, where they can linger for decades, if not hundreds of years.

In humans, exposure to even very low levels of PFAS, has been linked to multiple health problems, including thyroid and liver disorders, kidney and testicular cancers, immune system deficiencies, obesity, high cholesterol, and reproductive and fetal development problems.

In North Carolina, 57 public water systems reported their UCMR results for PFOA and PFOS, two of the compounds for which the EPA is proposing a drinking water standards.

Of those systems, 11 detected either PFOA, PFOS, or both, in their water samples at or above the proposed standard of 4 parts per trillion. That standard has not yet been formalized into a legally enforceable rule.

The list below includes the range of detection levels in parts per trillion and the number of service connections for each system. The number of service connections is lower than the number of customers. because multiple people can live in the same household. 

Sources: EPA UCMR, NCDEQ Drinking Water Watch

Some public water systems do disclose their PFAS and GenX sampling results on their respective websites, among them the Town of Cary, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, Brunswick County, and the cities of Pittsboro, Greensboro, High Point and Burlington.

But the NC Department of Environmental Quality does not require this disclosure. Of the systems on the recent UCMR list with elevated levels, most do not mention PFAS on their utilities’ webpages. Robeson County, Selma, Northampton-Lake Gaston and Lillington did not respond to NC Newsline emails asking how they communicate PFAS results to their customers.

“DEQ has encouraged systems to communicate results to their customers,” agency spokesman Josh Kastrinsky wrote in response to questions from NC Newsline. DEQ is also “providing available data to members of the public who inquire about levels in their communities.”

It’s unlikely, though, that most people know who to ask — and what to ask for.

How to find out if your public utility has detected PFAS in drinking water

If you’re on a public water system, call or email the utility. The contact information is on your monthly bill or on the local government website.

If you’re on public water but through a private company, such as Aqua, you can also contact them via phone or email.

DEQ has a public water supply section, 919-707-9100. That section hosts Drinking Water Watch, where you can search for your utility and learn more about its violation history, its sources of water, contact information and more. PFAS levels are not included in Drinking Water Watch.  

Jamestown buys its water from High Point and Greensboro, which have detected elevated levels of PFAS in their water supply. As part of the UCMR, Jamestown reported to the EPA that PFAS in its drinking water ranged from 4 ppt to 5.9 ppt, above the proposed maximum.

Yet that information is not on the Jamestown government website. Nor is it on the DEQ website because the town didn’t participate in state sampling conducted last year. (The nonprofit Environmental Working Group has a more comprehensive map and list.)

Paul Blanchard, Jamestown’s director of public services, told NC Newsline that the town plans to update the public about PFAS via its Town Council meetings, which are recorded and broadcast on YouTube. At the next meeting, Oct. 24, the council plans to hear from their Greensboro and High Point utilities officials to provide information about treatment options.

However, it would be difficult to sift through an entire Town Council meeting to find the portion where PFAS is discussed.

Both Greensboro and High Point disclose on their websites that they have detected PFAS in the drinking water. (While Greensboro’s public disclosure is thorough, High Point’s is bare bones.)

Greensboro found the compounds in its drinking water as early as 2014. The NC Collaboratory also found elevated levels in Greensboro and High Point water supplies in 2019. And in 2022, Greensboro’s raw water contained PFAS nine times the proposed maximum, according to DEQ data, and High Point’s raw water exceeded three times that level.

 

Why should I care about the UCMR?

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA must issue a list of unregulated contaminants to be monitored by public water systems every five years. This is known as the UCMR – the unregulated contaminant monitoring rule. 

All public water systems serving more than 3,330 customers are required to participate in the UCMR. The EPA covers the costs of sampling and data analysis for small systems serving fewer than 10,000 people. The EPA gathers data from only a subset of very small systems, those with fewer than 3,330 customers.

The latest reporting cycle, 2023-2025, marks the fifth UCMR. 

Since the UCMR started in 2001, public water systems have monitored for more than 140 contaminants, including metals, pesticides, and PFAS. The EPA has yet to establish enforceable drinking water standards for many of the contaminants, such as 1,4-Dioxane, but many states have used the UCMR data to set their own. 

Public water systems have through the end of 2025 to submit their results. However, the EPA will release additional data quarterly, as more systems report.

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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.

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