N.C. State University scientists conducting a study in Cape Fear River in Wilmington, North Carolina, have detected a persistent toxic industrial chemical known simply as GenX in the drinking water source, which has apparently circulated itself upstream, having also been found in Ohio and West Virginia surface waters.
Chemical giant DuPont introduced GenX in 2009 to replace Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), commonly known as C8, a compound used to manufacture Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) Teflon and coatings for stain-resistant carpeting, waterproof clothing, and other surface-resistant consumer products. DuPont and its spinoff Chemours phased out the use of C8 after being hit with a class-action lawsuit over health and environmental concerns, finally agreeing to pay out the $670+ million settlement in February of this year. The plaintiffs successfully argued their case by showing that the chemical had been proven to cause kidney, pancreatic, liver, and testicular cancer, high cholesterol (hypercholesterolemia), pregnancy complications, including preeclampsia, thyroid disease, and ulcerative colitis in thousands of cases.
While GenX is not regulated by the government, a report published last year by The Intercept found that GenX is associated with some of the same health problems as PFOAs (perfluoroctanoic acids), including cancer and reproductive issues. PFOAs are everywhere, even in house dust — however, despite their ubiquitousness, the EPA classifies GenX as an “emerging contaminant.” Emerging contaminants are not regulated, have not been tested for safety or toxicity, and their effects on human health are unknown. GenX is biopersistent, staying in the body for 1 to 3 years. The chemical also cannot be removed using traditional water treatment methods.
Research presented at a conference this week at Northeastern University detailed the presence of GenX in water in North Carolina and Ohio. In both cases, the chemical was found in water near plants that were owned by DuPont and since 2015 have been operated by Chemours. Both GenX and PFOA belong to a larger group of chemicals known as PFAS, which are structurally similar and believed to persist indefinitely in nature.
Levels of GenX in the drinking water of one North Carolina water utility, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, averaged 631 ppt (parts per trillion), according to a study published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters in 2016. Although researchers didn’t test the water of two other drinking water providers that also draw water from that area of the Cape Fear River, the entire watershed downstream of the Chemours discharge, which is a source of drinking water for some 250,000 people, is likely to be contaminated, according to Detlef Knappe, one of the authors of the study.
In North Carolina, GenX was present in water at even higher levels, with the most concentrated sample measuring 4,500 ppt. Although the EPA has not set legally binding regulations on any member of this class of chemicals, the agency last year set a drinking water standard for PFOA and the related chemical PFOS of 70 ppt. Several states have also set their own drinking levels for PFOA. Vermont has set the lowest so far at 20 ppt, and water experts in New Jersey have proposed an even lower level, 14 ppt, though it has not yet been finalized.
Disturbing new revelations have surfaced that the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority knew about the presence of GenX in the water supply more than a year ago. The CFPUA is conducting an internal review of employee involvement that is expected to be released Thursday.
On Wednesday, June 21, Chemours officials announced they will safely remove the chemical GenX from the Cape Fear River.
North Carolina Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan declared in a statement Tuesday evening that the company’s move is a step in the right direction, claiming his agency and the Department of Health and Human Services will continue to investigate the chemical in the water.
A spokeswoman for the federal Environmental Protection Agency said it will determine whether Chemours is in compliance with regulations at a plant upstream in Fayetteville.