The Pulse

PFAS-contaminated foam found at Caswell Beach, Oak Island

By: - October 18, 2021 8:00 am
PFAS-contaminated foam washed ashore near the Ocean Island Fishing Pier this past spring. Although not all foams contain PFAS, state environmental and health officials caution people not to touch the substance. (Photo courtesy Emily Donovan)

The Ocean Crest Pier on Oak Island is a premier spot for saltwater fishing, where the sea teems with flounder and cobia, pompano and king mackerel. 

This past spring, Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, spotted not fish, but odd foam that looked like mounds of Redi-Wip, amassing on the beach. She partnered with scientists at NC State University, who sampled the material and found that it likely contained at least a dozen types of toxic PFAS, according to a Sept. 28 report.

The source of the PFAS-contaminated foam is unknown. PFAS are widespread in the environment, where they persist for hundreds of years. 

Their presence on the beach is troubling. Previous research theorized that touching PFAS did not present a health risk, but a 2020 mouse study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health showed that “dermal exposure” — skin contact — with a type of compound, PFOA, harms the immune system and “raises concern about potential adverse effects,” the study authors wrote.

“People are walking barefoot on the sand,” Donovan said, adding that beachgoers could also be exposed through contaminated sea spray.

There are at least 5,000 types of PFAS, which are specifically manufactured or are the byproducts of industrial processes. PFAS are found in many consumer products, including fast food packaging, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, carpeting, furniture, Teflon cookware, and stain- and water-resistant materials.

Foam leaving the downspout and gutter system at Emily Donovan’s home (Photo courtesy Emily Donovan)

Also known as perfluorinated and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS have been linked to multiple health problems: thyroid disorders, kidney and testicular cancer, reproductive issues, low-birth weight, high cholesterol, and a depressed immune system.

There are no legally enforceable federal or state standards for PFAS in drinking water, although both the EPA and the NC Department of Environmental Quality have issued a health advisory goal of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFAS. State regulators have also recommended not drinking water that contains more than 10 ppt of any single compound. The EPA is expected to announce additional information later today, which it is calling a “road map” for regulating PFAS.

The NC State scientists conducted “non-targeted analysis” of the beach foam, as well as foam found in other coastal locations, including rainwater flowing through the gutters at Donovan’s  home in Brunswick County.

“Targeted analysis” tries to find a specific type of PFAS compound; it’s like fishing only for flounder. Non-targeted analysis tests for any type of PFAS, comparable to fishing for any species you can catch.

Based on the test results, NCSU scientists determined that the foam near the Ocean Crest Pier “confidently” contained 12 types of PFAS and “probably” contained another eight. Because of the testing method, the concentrations were not available, only that a compound was likely present or not. (There is no EPA-approved or certified method for collecting or testing of foam, so sampling results are only estimates.)

Six types of PFAS were detected in water leaving the gutters at Donovan’s home. “Is this coming from Chemours” — a source of some PFAS 80 miles upstream in Bladen County — “or somewhere else?” Donovan said. “It shouldn’t be in my gutters.”

Foam sampling sites conducted by NC State University scientists, April-May 2021; *two sampling sites close to each other (Map: Lisa Sorg, based on NCSU data)

Number of types of PFAS that were “confidently present” in foam, according to NC State University scientists

Private residence, Emily Donovan’s home in Leland (6)
Ocean Crest Fishing Pier (12)
701 Caswell Beach Road (10)
Oak Island (12)
Along Cape Fear River (11)
264-298 E. Bay St. (10)

Anna Gurney, spokeswoman for the NC Department of Environmental Quality, told Policy Watch that agency investigators go out monthly by boat and on foot, looking for foam. Their investigations have found PFAS-contaminated foam in 15 locations across the state, although the sources are still unclear. Policy Watch provided the most recent data from NC State to the agency, which is reviewing it, Gurney said

Most of the time, though, DEQ officials rely on public reports. In the past 18 months, Donovan has reported other foam sightings, as have residents in Cumberland and Bladen counties, where it showed up in private driveways and culverts. The compounds also have been found in foam in Falls Lake and the Neuse River.

Even the western part of state has not been spared. Near Shelby, in Cleveland County, residents spotted foam in a stream. Although DEQ has not pinpointed the source, a nearby facility has a state permit to apply petroleum-contaminated soil on land. Petroleum doesn’t contain PFAS, but if oil and gasoline has been sprayed with firefighting foam containing PFAS, then those materials could become contaminated.

PFAS can wind up hundreds, if not thousands of miles from their source. In some cases, industry discharges the compounds into rivers, contaminating water supplies downstream. The compounds can also hitchhike in the air, through a process known as “atmospheric deposition.” Wind can carry the compounds far from their source, then unload them on moisture droplets, which fall to the earth. Once on the ground, the compounds can infiltrate the soil and reach groundwater, often a drinking water supply, particularly for rural residents.

PFAS tends to concentrate in foam; testing in other parts of the state found that PFAS levels in the water were much lower. However, the compounds have also been detected in fish tissue. State environmental officials found PFAS in fish in the privately owned Marshwood Lake, which is within seven-tenths of a mile from the Chemours plant near the Bladen-Cumberland county line.

Donovan said she’s disappointed that DEQ and state legislators have made little to no progress in regulating PFAS. This year, DEQ had an opportunity to set maximum thresholds for some types of PFAS in surface water as part of its triennial review process, but chose not to, citing a lack of information, as required by state law, to calculate the standards. The EPA requires states and tribes to review its surface water standards at least once every three years.

The NC PFAS Testing Network, part of the NC Policy Collaboratory, has received more than $7.1 million from the General Assembly to study the prevalence of the compounds and to make further recommendations to lawmakers and DEQ on controlling and eliminating them in drinking water and surface water. However, despite voluminous data collected by the network and by DEQ, the state legislature has passed no meaningful legislation regarding PFAS.

“There’s a lot of meaningful information that the General Assembly has never acted on,” Donovan said.


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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.