This is a developing story.
WILMINGTON — Even infinitesimal levels of several types of PFAS, including GenX, can harm human health, the EPA said today, underscoring the toxicity of these compounds in drinking water.
Radihka Fox, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Water, announced the more stringent lifetime health advisory goals at the national PFAS conference in Wilmington. Although legally unenforceable, the new and alarming figures are game-changers for public utilities and private well owners, as well as state environmental regulators and the chemical industry.
Depending on exposure levels, PFAS have been linked to multiple health problems, including thyroid and liver disorders, reproductive and fetal development problems, immune system deficiencies and kidney and testicular cancers.
In addition to drinking water, PFAS are found in microwave popcorn bags, compost, artificial turf, fast food containers, firefighting foam, stain- and grease-resistant fabrics, and hundreds of other consumer products. There are upward of 12,000 types of PFAS; they’re known as “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
“The Cape Fear River is a devastating reminder,” of PFAS contamination in drinking water, Fox told conference attendees.
Last fall, the EPA issued its final toxicology report showing that GenX is more toxic than had been previously believed. Today, based on that science, the EPA released a final health advisory goal for GenX at 10 parts per trillion. That is more stringent than North Carolina’s current goal of 140 ppt, set by the NC Department of Health and Human Services in 2017, after NC State and EPA scientists found GenX in the Cape Fear River and Wilmington’s drinking water.
The source of that pollution is Chemours, which operates its Fayetteville Works plant 90 miles upstream. Since late 2017, state environmental officials have prohibited Chemours from discharging GenX from its manufacturing processes into the river. However, contaminated groundwater continues to seep into the river; as part of a consent order with the state and Cape Fear River Watch, Chemours is building a mile-long, underground barrier wall to try to keep GenX and other PFAS out of the waterway.
Commonly found in firefighting foam, PFBS has a final health advisory goal of 2,000 ppt. PFBS enter waterways when the foam is used to fight fires or during training exercises, then drains into sewer systems and streams.
For two other compounds, PFOS and PFOA, the EPA has set interim health advisory goals in place while the agency works on a legally enforceable drinking water standard, due out later this year. “We’re moving with haste for a national drinking water standard by the end of the year,” Fox said. That proposal will be subject to public comment.
The levels for these two compounds are so low they are difficult to imagine. PFOS should not exceed 0.02 ppt — or 20 parts per quadrillion; the goals for PFOA are 0.004 ppt – or four parts per quadrillion. A quadrillion is the number 1 with 15 zeros. For context, there are roughly 1 quadrillion ants on Earth. If those ants represented PFOA or PFOS, it would take only 4 to 20 of those ants to exceed the new health goals.
The EPA’s previous goal was 70 ppt for both PFOS and PFOA, but Fox said peer-reviewed toxicity studies showed harmful health effects at even lower levels.
PFOS was phased out in the U.S. in 2002, followed by PFOA in 2015. However, because of their persistence in the environment, they are still found widely in drinking water.
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Human Services “are moving quickly to evaluate the state’s drinking water supplies based on these health advisories,” said DEQ spokesperson Sharon Martin in an email statement, “and determine appropriate next steps to assess and reduce exposure risks.”
Chemours disputed the EPA findings, citing unnamed “nationally recognized toxicologists and other leading scientific experts across a range of disciplines” who evaluated the EPA’s underlying science and “concluded that it is fundamentally flawed,” the company said in a prepared statement.
Chemours, 3M and other chemical manufacturers have paid or relied on some industry scientists who have downplayed the dangers of the compounds.
The new final and interim goals pose challenges for public utilities and private drinking well owners. In Wilmington, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority has spent $46 million to upgrade its water treatment system to remove or sharply reduce levels of PFAS in drinking water. That cost is passed onto ratepayers, although the utility is suing Chemours to recoup the expenses.
Recent sampling data from the CFPUA show GenX levels at 1.8 ppt, below the EPA’s new health advisory goals. PFOS and PFOA levels were below 1 ppt, but still above the new EPA interim goals.
Brunswick County, adjacent to Wilmington’s county of New Hanover, also has born the brunt of PFAS contamination. Levels of PFOS and PFOA ranged from 4 ppt to nearly 9 ppt, far above the new EPA advisories. The Northwest treatment plant is installing $122 million in upgrades to remove the contaminants.
Sunny Point Military Ocean Terminal, which is in Brunswick County, reported levels of PFOA and PFOS at 21.1 ppt in tap water, according to Emily Donovan, co-founder of the organization Clean Cape Fear. In groundwater, the levels were astronomical: 23,700 ppt.
And Pittsboro’s drinking water also has high levels of perfluorinated compounds, as high as 452 ppt. Pittsboro draws its drinking water from the Haw River, which has been polluted by industrial dischargers upstream.
Those utilities are among the few that know the extent of the contamination in their drinking water. Many utilities and private well owners are unaware of whether their drinking water is contaminated. “Data on the PFOA and PFOS levels in North Carolina’s private drinking water wells and public water systems are limited,” Martin said. “However, available sampling indicates the presence of one or both compounds in multiple public water systems across the state. DEQ and DHHS are evaluating the available data in light of these new health advisories to identify potentially affected communities and take action to address impacts to North Carolina residents.”
Fox of the EPA also announced today one billion dollars in grant funding to help small or disadvantaged communities to address emerging contaminants like PFAS in drinking water. The money can be used for technical assistance, water quality testing, contractor training, and installation of centralized treatment technologies and systems.
Donovan of Clean Cape Fear told conference attendees this morning to “keep fighting, Please fight for communities like ours, who are unaware and overexposed. … This is a global crisis.”
Two environmental advocacy groups also issued statements about the new goals.
From Brian Buzby, executive director of the NC Conservation Network:
“EPA’s stringent new health values for several toxic ‘forever chemicals’ will save lives and ensure a healthier environment for all of us. North Carolina communities are tragically familiar with this family of substances — chemical manufacturers DuPont and Chemours infamously spent decades discharging these and other PFAS compounds into the Cape Fear River, the primary drinking water source for hundreds of thousands of people. EPA’s action on these four PFAS is also a reminder that this entire class of chemicals appears to be much more toxic than previously known — it’s crucial that we keep them out of our water, air, clothing and food.”
And from Geoff Gisler, senior attorney and leader of the Clean Water Program at the Southern Environmental Law Center (who led litigation against Chemours in North Carolina to stop GenX and other PFAS pollution):
“We applaud EPA’s leadership in setting the new health advisory level for GenX and proposing new advisories for PFOA and PFOS. No community should have to suffer from toxic PFAS pollution, especially when agencies have existing authority to identify and control sources of these dangerous chemicals. EPA, DEQ, and state agencies nationwide must enforce existing law that requires use of technology to reduce or eliminate PFAS when issuing water permits.”
Melanie Benesh, Environmental Working Group’s legislative attorney:
“Today’s announcement should set off alarm bells for consumers and regulators. These proposed advisory levels demonstrate that we must move much faster to dramatically reduce exposures to these toxic chemicals.”