A new study from N.C. State University has revealed that the levels of chemicals discharged by DuPont and Chemours into the Cape Fear River were significantly higher than previously believed and that the chemicals will not degrade in the natural environment.
Using newly available information, N.C. State environmental engineer Detlef Knappe’s lab retested samples of Cape Fear River water from 2014 and 2015 for previously undetectable per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) finding total concentrations of about 990,000 parts per trillion (ppt) in a 2014 sample taken just below the William O. Huske Dam, just below Chemours’ outfall into the Cape Fear River.
Total PFAS concentrations of 130,000 ppt were found just above Lock and Dam No. 1, about 70 miles downstream of Chemours. Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties all draw much of their drinking water from an intake above Lock and Dam No. 1.
“The 2015 sample from Lock and Dam 1, in my opinion, is maybe our current best estimate of what people in the Wilmington area were drinking for the 37 years before this discharge (was stopped),” Knappe said. The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality suspended Chemours’ discharge permit in 2017.
Knappe’s lab was able to reanalyze the 2014 and 2015 samples for 10 new per- and polyfluoroalkyl ether acids because it now has standards — samples that can be used to calibrate high-tech analytical instruments — that scientists can use to test for the concentrations of specific compounds.
The ether acids Knappe’s lab tested for are not included in the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard PFAS analysis. That means tests of Cape Fear River drinking water using that method are likely to severely underestimate the amount of PFAS compounds present. Tests for better-known PFAS compounds using the same samples revealed 140 ppt of PFAS at the Huske dam and 206 ppt at Lock and Dam No. 1.
The chemicals Knappe’s lab identified as making up what he called “incredibly high” levels have difficult-to-remember names — PFMOAA, PFO2HxA and PFO3OA, among others.
For residents of the Lower Cape Fear region who have already dealt with more than two years of uncertainty after learning the PFAS chemical GenX was in their drinking water, this new study presents even more questions. Researchers lack knowledge about how drinking the compounds, potentially for decades, could have affected the health of roughly 250,000 people who depend on drinking water drawn from the river.
Emily Donovan, a cofounder of community watchdog group Clean Cape Fear, said, “We need to do some epidemiological research. We’ve been exposed, we know we’ve been exposed for decades. Now we deserve a fighting chance to be monitored so we know what risks are coming our way.”
PFAS chemicals are used in a multitude of products including stain-resistant carpets, dental floss, grease-resistant food bags and cell phone batteries.
Knappe’s lab also produced the bombshell 2016 study showing that GenX, a PFAS discharged from Chemours’ Fayetteville Works plant, was traveling down the Cape Fear River, making its way through a Wilmington-area public utility’s water treatment system and into finished drinking water.
That study led to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) setting a provisional drinking water health goal of 140 ppt for GenX and, eventually, to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality levying a single-site record $12 million fine. It also shaped Brunswick County’s estimated $137 million expansion of its Northwest Water Treatment Plant, which includes a reverse osmosis system largely because of concerns about PFAS. The Wilmington-area Cape Fear Public Utility Authority has embarked on its own $43 million expansion, which will include technology meant to capture GenX and other contaminants.
When the 2016 study was published, Knappe said, GenX was the only ether compound scientists had a standard for, and they were able to use that to determine an average concentration of 630 ppt in Wilmington’s raw water in 2013.
Knappe points to that 630 ppt concentration when asked why he is confident the new study is indicative of historic conditions in the river, noting the 780 ppt concentration of GenX in the 2015 sample is in line with the 2016 study and other samples his lab has taken.
In addition to N.C. State researchers, a trio of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists worked on the study.
In response to a question about the study, Lisa Randall, a Chemours spokeswoman, wrote that Chemours had not yet seen it. Randall went on to write, “Our definitive actions have significantly reduced emissions to air and water, as is demonstrated through current water sampling data. We would encourage other businesses and industries whose actions impact water quality in the Cape Fear to do the same. Chemours remains committed to reducing PFAS emissions from our Fayetteville manufacturing facility by 99% or greater.”
Health effects of chemicals
While the effects of most PFAS chemicals are unknown, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says exposure may affect growth in infants and children, interfere with hormones and increase the risk of certain cancers. Scientists studying PFAS chemicals have discovered impacts to the liver, pancreas and thyroid.
Speaking this week, Knappe expressed particular concern about PFMOAA, a chemical about which virtually nothing is understood. The new analysis found PFMOAA near the intake pipe at levels of about 110,000 ppt.
“The PFMOAA level is very high,” Knappe said, “and even though we don’t find it — or couldn’t find it — in people’s blood, people who drank this water were exposed to it on a daily basis. So I think we really need to understand the toxicity of PFMOAA better. Even though it’s maybe much less bioaccumulative than some of the other compounds, it’s something that people were exposed to on a daily basis.”
Knappe also said he’s worried about PFO2HxA and PFO3A, compounds that were found at levels of 7,800 ppt and 6,300 ppt near the intake. Like PFMOAA, scientists do not know how the chemicals affect human health.
Furthermore, Knappe said, it’s unclear how the compounds impact the human body when they are present at the same time, as they evidently were in Southeastern North Carolina’s drinking water.
Jacqueline Bangma is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is studying how perfluorinated chemicals interact with the placenta, particularly how they potentially cause complications such as preeclampsia.
Bangma said there is research showing the health effects of perfluorinated chemicals PFOA, PFOS and PFHxS. But scientists have almost no understanding about how the chemicals Knappe’s lab has found in the Cape Fear River could impact the health of Wilmington-area residents.
Referencing the newer chemicals, Bangma said, “They’ve been discovered in the last couple of years to be as much of a concern as PFOS and PFOA. The scientific community has not caught up.”
A DHHS spokeswoman said late Thursday that the agency had met with Knappe to discuss the findings and would use the information to better inform its understanding about PFAS, adding that the agency often turns to academia or federal agencies to help answer remaining questions about PFAS chemicals.
“To date, we know of very little research on potential health impacts of PFMOAA and other newly identified chemicals. These new findings highlight the need for these studies,” Kelly Haight Connor, the DHHS spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
Donovan has called for additional funding from the N.C. General Assembly for health studies and asked DHHS to revisit cancer incidence studies to see if there’s a link between PFAS exposure and rates in the Cape Fear region.
“At the end of the day, if it’s in your body every day and it’s in your system every day at these levels, something has happened,” Donovan said. She said her family knows more people who have fallen ill around Wilmington than they had before moving to the region.
History of contamination
Around 1980, DuPont began running a vinyl ether process at Fayetteville Works that produced GenX and other PFASs as a byproduct, the plant’s longtime environmental manager told Wilmington-area officials during a June 2017 meeting.
In 2009, DuPont began producing GenX to replace C8, a chemical that had contaminated the Ohio River Valley around the company’s Parkersburg, West Virginia, plant. By the time a class action lawsuit brought by Ohio River Valley residents was settled for $671 million in February 2017, DuPont had spun many of its chemical manufacturers off into Chemours. At Fayetteville Works, plant leadership remained the same even though the name on the door changed.
Knappe said Wilmington-area utilities can expect to see some PFAS in raw water drawn from the Cape Fear for decades to come.
“These compounds that were maybe designed to be somewhat less persistent are really as persistent as the old stuff,” Knappe said.
DEQ consent order
Chemours has been barred from discharging wastewater from the processes known to involve PFAS chemicals into the Cape Fear since November 2017. The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality suspended the permit after Chemours failed to report a spill that environmental officials discovered after noticing elevated levels of GenX.
In a prepared statement, Sharon Martin, a DEQ spokeswoman, wrote, “DEQ actions to stop the wastewater discharges from Chemours and reduce GenX air emissions had an immediate impact as current sampling by DEQ and by the PFAST Network shows concentrations of PFOA and PFAS below the EPA lifetime Health Advisory Limit and concentrations of GenX below the DHHS provisional health goal.”
A Sept. 10 test result from Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, which provides water to much of Wilmington and New Hanover County, showed GenX at 25.2 ppt, lower than the 140 ppt provisional health goal set by DSS. And the total concentration of PFOA and PFOS was just above 5 ppt, lower than the EPA’s 70 ppt advisory limit.
But the total concentration of PFAS was 244.4 ppt. Of that, 96.3 ppt came from PFMOAA, PFO2HxA and PFO3OA, the chemicals Knappe’s lab reported in high quantities in the 2014 and 2015 samples.
As part of a consent order between Cape Fear River Watch, Chemours and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality that was finalized in February 2019, Chemours agreed to build a thermal oxidizer that will capture and control PFAS that were being sent into the air at the facility. The company will also explore mitigation efforts for groundwater and sediment.
Chemours also agreed to conduct toxicity studies on five PFAS chosen by DEQ that would be used in the development of surface and groundwater regulatory standards. PFMOAA and PFO2HxA were on the list of five chosen by DEQ.
Thursday, a Chemours spokeswoman said the company is working with DEQ to finalize the specifics of the studies.
This story was produced with financial support from Report for America/GroundTruth Project, the North Carolina Community Foundation and the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. The News & Observer maintains full editorial control of the work.