RALEIGH—Chemours is asking the state to declare the safe levels of GenX in the environment at 1,000 times higher than the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s current Drinking Water Health Advisory Level.
The DuPont subsidiary has submitted a formal petition to North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) to inflate allowable levels of GenX, the chemical compound that the public became aware of last summer — although there is evidence it has been in the Cape Fear River and surrounding waterways for several decades.
The EPA’s current lifetime health advisory level for perfluoroalkyl substances like GenX is 70 nanograms per liter.
On April 27, Chemours submitted a petition–based on research the chemical company itself has compiled–to request that the state establish groundwater quality standards for GenX at 70,000 nanograms per liter, a thousand-fold increase.
Per person, per liter
These drinking water advisories represent levels of GenX allowed, per liter, in a public water supply. According to the Centers for Disease Control, U.S. adults consumed an average of 1.15 liters of water a day from 2005 to 2010.
Agencies arrive at allowable concentration levels by measuring and estimating “the concentration of GenX at which no adverse non-cancer health effects would be anticipated in the most sensitive population over an entire lifetime of exposure,” according to the DEQ.
The state finds adverse health effects may appear after a lifetime of consuming GenX in excess of 140 nanograms per liter. NCDEQ warns bottle-fed infants, the population that drinks the largest volume of water per body weight, are the most vulnerable.
GenX, a perfluorinated compound, is currently regulated under an umbrella categorization that regulates all perfluorinated compounds. Under North Carolina Administrative Code (15A NCAC 02L .0202(c)), the NCDEQ allows petitions to establish levels for substances not naturally occurring in the environment.
“Any person may petition the Director to establish an interim maximum allowable concentration for a substance for which a standard has not been established under this Rule,” the regulation states.
Chemours is petitioning for what is called a unique “interim maximum allowable concentration” or IMAC, of 70,000 nanograms of GenX per liter. The company’s rationale is that GenX is a so-called “short-chain polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) substance.”
In its petition, Chemours cites short-chain polyfluoroalkyls like GenX were developed to replace “long-chain polyfluoroalkyls”; those would be chemicals that are “essentially non-degradable.”
Chemours’ proposed “conservative lifetime health advisory value” for GenX of 70,000 nanograms per liter is 1,000 times higher than the EPA’s current recommendation and 500 times higher than North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ drinking water health goal. And it boosts its argument by pointing to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
In 2017, DHHS downgraded its health goal of GenX from 71,000 nanograms per liter to 140, based on a set of animal studies and coordination with the federal EPA.
Without federal guidelines to rely on, the department based its preliminary GenX health goal on European Chemicals Agency’s toxicity information. Chemours cites the department’s previous health goal as being “similar in magnitude” to the allowable concentration of the chemical it is currently seeking.
On Monday, May 7, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), on behalf of Cape Fear Fear River Watch, filed a request for declaratory action, asking NCDEQ to use its power against Chemours. Those filings cite measurements of GenX in private wells as high as 4,000 nanograms per liter, 28 times the state’s current health goal.
If Chemours’ petition results in a new groundwater quality standard for GenX, recent measurements would no longer breach standards that have landed the company in hot water this year.
“To suggest that you are going to increase the parts per trillion of a known carcinogen to my thinking is absurd,” Representative Deb Butler said.
Butler said this petition, paired with SELC’s recent filings, is Chemours’ attempt to one-up the state.
“I guess this is an attempt to flex their muscles and I’m pretty sure our community won’t stand (for it),” Butler said.
Butler referred to a need to restructure the state’s discharge permitting process.
“The permitting process needs to be completely revised in North Carolina,” Butler said. “People who have a discharge permit need to prove that what they are putting in public North Carolina waters before they contaminate them.
Bridget Munger, spokesperson for NCDEQ, said the agency has not yet responded to Chemours’ petition.
“No, DEQ has not yet responded,” Munger wrote in an email. “The petition is still under review, along with all other documents received as part of the company’s response.”
Chemours, along with Senator Michael Lee and Representative Ted Davis, did not immediately respond for comment.
Johanna Ferebee can be reached at email@example.com or @j__ferebee on Twitter