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GenX found in rain

Posted February 21, 2018 2:07 p.m. EST
Updated February 23, 2018 10:45 p.m. EST

Chemours Plant, Fayettville, NC

— Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington found trace amounts of GenX in rainwater on campus, a university scientist told state legislators Wednesday.

The concentration was about 25 parts per trillion, well under the state's health goal for the compound, which is produced by Chemours in Bladen County and used to make Teflon, among other things. That goal, 140 parts per trillion, is based on tests on mice and translated to what scientists predict would be safe for a bottle-fed baby to consume.

But the chemical is one of many in North Carolina's water that hasn't been heavily studied until now, making its health effects hard to predict. Since the Wilmington StarNews detailed its presence in the Cape Fear River last summer, GenX and other chemicals in its family have been found in soil, river sediment, well water and, now, the rain.

Update: On Friday, Feb. 23, the state's Department of Environmental Quality posted a map of rain water collections near the Chemours plant itself. GenX registered in all 10 locations, including one that showed the chemical above the state health goal. That location registered as high as 630 parts per trillion.

Scientists have suspected GenX is entering the air at the Chemours facility. The state Department of Environmental Quality is testing air from factory smokestacks now, and results are expected early next month.

The Chemours facility is the likely suspect for UNC-W's recent finding, researcher Robert Kieber told a House oversight committee Wednesday, but he could not say for sure. Given the university's location, some 70 miles from the Chemours plant, Kiebert predicted the substance is widespread.

Separate research by Duke University professors found chemicals related to GenX in Jordan Lake and in Cary tap water. Officials there, and everywhere else GenX has been found below the state's health goal, have said repeatedly they believe the water is safe to drink.

"My guess is, if you tested [the rain] in Asheville, you'd find it," Kieber told House members. "My guess is, if you tested in Virginia you'd find it."

Scientists are also studying how to remove GenX and other poorly understood "emerging compounds" from drinking water. An initial test with a granular activated carbon filtration unit on well water near the Chemours plant shows promise. It took water showing 845 parts per trillion GenX down to about 1 part per trillion, according to a DEQ presentation Wednesday.

The results were similar for related perfluorinated compounds.

The system was tested by Chemours at an employee's home, DEQ Assistant Secretary for the Environment Sheila Holman said. The department plans to replicate the test at four other homes, in part to assuage community concerns that the initial test was performed by Chemours itself.

The company has cooperated with the state at times – it stopped its discharge of GenX into the Cape Fear River last summer, for example – but regulators have also hit the company with multiple notices of violation and accused it of holding information.

North Carolina State University researcher Detlef Knappe, one of the top state researchers on GenX and related compounds, tested filtration systems last year, according to the Wilmington StarNews. An under-sink reverse osmosis system came out as the likely best choice, the newspaper said in October. The report indicated a few problems with whole-house filters containing activated carbon, including the need for routine filter changes and a cost that runs thousands of dollars.

GenX is difficult to remove from water, and levels found just outside the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority plant are roughly the same as levels leaving the plant and heading to people's homes, Executive Director Jim Flechtner said Wednesday. The authority considers granular activated carbon "the most promising solution," but a system large enough for the area's supply would cost an estimated $39 million, potentially meaning a 16 percent increase in customer water bills.

The authority has sued Chemours, in part to recover treatment costs. Flechtner said the authority wants to find a "sweet spot" on costs and contamination. Low levels of GenX are thought to be safe despite some studies showing cancer and other health concerns similar to a precursor chemical that led to a massive legal settlement for DuPont and Chemours. Chemours spun off from parent company DuPont in 2015.

But there are other chemicals in the environment, and little research exists on how various combinations affect people's health, Flechtner said.

"It's the absence of data that's so concerning," he said Wednesday, addressing concerns from state Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, that health concerns have been overblown. "It's very unlikely that we'll be able to remove 100 percent of these contaminants."

Given low concentrations flowing into the plant, McElraft asked Flechtner, "why would you need to do anything at all?"

"We have absolutely scared the people to death in the Wilmington area," she said.

Legislators in the Wilmington area are clearly feeling pressure from constituents, some of whom purchase bottled water in mass quantities, and some have criticized DEQ's response on GenX. The department's recent funding requests have been denied, though, most recently by the state Senate, which rejected a proposal with backing in the House.

Rep. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover, who chairs the House Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality, said people want to know "how much more is Chemours going to get away with."

Holman said that's "certainly a fair question."

"We have seen cooperation in some instances [from Chemours], and sometimes we have had to be very specific [with what we want them to do]," Holman said.

Holman said the state has been careful as it builds "an enforcement case" not to take actions it can't eventually justify in court.

A number of lawsuits have been filed against Chemours on GenX. There is also evidence of a federal investigation into Chemours' discharges, and company officials have repeatedly refused to comment to the media or to appear before legislative committees.