North Carolina's Water Crisis

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Analies Dyjak, M.A.  |  Policy Nerd

The state of North Carolina and non-governmental organizations have been battling with chemical manufacturing giant, Chemours, over pollution in the Cape Fear River. Dozens of communities draw drinking water from this river, and surrounding groundwater aquifers, which have been contaminated by a harmful category of chemicals called PFAS. Unfortunately, the Consent Order (legal settlement) does not go far enough to protect all residents that have been impacted by the chemical pollution. Little Miss Flint has partnered with Hydroviv to donate filters (free of cost) to residents in New Hanover County that do not qualify for filters under the Chemours Consent Order. The program distributes Hydroviv filters to low-income families who would otherwise be unable to purchase a water filtration system that is known to effectively remove PFAS. We’re excited and hopeful to expand this filter donation program to reach more low income individuals that have been impacted by Chemours’ activities. 

Legal Settlement with North Carolina Does Not Go Far Enough:

Under the Consent Order, Chemours is required to partake in a variety of different types of mitigation, including bottled water delivery, offsite water sampling, and installation and maintenance of residential water filtration systems. Although Chemours has completed some mitigation near the Fayetteville facility, PFAS levels in surrounding communities are still extremely high.

Chemours is required to install a water filtration system if a surrounding well test shows above 10 parts per trillion for a single PFAS, or 70 parts per trillion for combined PFAS. A critical problem in this Consent Order is that residents, schools, and local businesses must have a concentration of GenX of 140 parts per trillion (or any applicable public health goal, whichever is lower) or higher to qualify for a free water filter. It’s well understood in the scientific community that contaminants like GenX can cause negative health effects at concentrations far lower than 140 parts per trillion. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) determined in 2018 that GenX is considered toxic at 80 parts per trillion. ATSDR also determined that “the data are suggestive of cancer” at this same concentration. It’s not entirely clear how many PFAS variations are considered under “total PFAS.” FDA believes there are as many as 5000 different types of PFAS.

It’s also unclear how many communities the Consent Order actually applies to, and who is eligible for a free filter from Chemours. In January of this year, a representative from Chemours said that the contamination is always communicated to residents that live within a 2.5 miles radius of the facility. We now know that the contaminated zone stretches 90 miles south into Wilmington, North Carolina. At the beginning of 2019, only 1,673 homes within a 9 miles radius of the Fayetteville plant qualified for a free water filter. 

Why is North Carolina a “Hot Spot” for PFAS?

According to the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, plastic and chemical manufacturing is “growing at 1.5 times the rate of the national average.” PFAS have been used in the production of Scotchgaurd, Teflon, firefighting foam, metal plating, stain-resistant fabrics, and heat resistant products. Industrial facilities that manufacture these types of products are not required to follow strict disposal processes, causing harmful chemicals to end up in waterways. The Cape Fear River, which happens to be the primary source of drinking water for several surrounding counties, has been inundated with PFAS chemicals. It’s important to note that the Chemours facility in Fayetteville, North Carolina is not the only company responsible for the pollution. Despite mitigation efforts and decreased overall production, PFAS are still being detected at levels well above public health goals in the Cape Fear River. A recent study tested various areas of the Cape Fear River basin. Some PFAS samples were as high as 2295.85 parts per trillion for total PFAS. There is also inconsistent testing and lack of disclosure to residents in the contaminated zone. For example, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality detected PFAS levels that exceed the states’ public health goal in wastewater in Holly Springs. There is no mention of PFAS on the Holly Springs website, nor are they required to test for it.

Health Effects of PFAS: 

The Centers for Disease Control and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have determined that exposure to PFAS can cause various negative health effects, including an increased risk of cancer, increased cholesterol, changes in liver enzymes, decreased infant birth weight, and increased risk of high blood pressure and preeclampsia in pregnant women. CDC also discovered a “possible intersection” between PFAS and COVID-19, claiming that “PFAS exposure may decrease the body’s ability to respond to vaccines.” A recent study out of Yale University determined that exposure to certain PFAS chemicals increases the risk of miscarraige in pregnant women by 80-120%. In regard to GenX specifically, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry stated that “the data are suggestive of cancer.”

How Do I Know if PFAS Are In My Tap Water?

At this point, you’re probably wondering how to find out if PFAS have been detected in your drinking water. It can be extremely difficult to find out this information, in part due to the fact that they are not regulated by EPA, and therefore municipalities are not required to test for, report, or monitor for them in tap water. Some states, such as California, Michigan, and New Jersey require municipalities to test for at least one or more PFAS chemicals. Some non-government organizations complete their own PFAS testing. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) created an interactive map that shows areas of the country that have been tested for PFAS. If your municipality is not on this map, it does not mean that your tap water is free from PFAS. Feel free to email hello@hydroviv.com if your municipality is not on this map. Our Water Nerds will do a deep dive into your specific drinking water quality and explain the findings so you are armed with credible information.

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