BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Brunswick County’s raw water saw a spike in the level of one member of the PFAS family in its raw water, while the levels of other related chemicals – including GenX – remain under state and federal ‘health advisories.’
PFAS are a family of chemicals sharing similar carbon-fluorine bonds; they are used in a host of industrial and commercial applications including non-stick cookware, fire-fighting agents, and food packaging, capitalizing on their ability to repel grease and water. There are over 4,700 members of the family and only limited testing has been done on a few PFAS chemicals, including GenX. However, several PFAS chemicals have been linked to cancer.
According to Brunswick County, the most recent results of PFAS testing in the raw water from the county’s water treatment plant show elevated levels of one main PFAS chemical, known as PFMOAA (Perfluoro-2-methoxyacetic acid). The testing, performed by the North Carolina Per and Polyfluoroaklyl Substance Testing (PFAST) Network, was done on a sample taken from Brunswick County’s Leland plant on May 29, 2019.
Raw water testing results
You can find the full preliminary report here, but the major points – according to Brunswick County – include the combined level of PFOS and PFOA, the level of GenX, and the “total” PFAS concentration (all measured in ‘parts per trillion,’ or ppt).
The total of PFOA and PFOS was 19 ppt. That’s under the EPA’s health advisory level of 70 ptt. While the EPA has not issued regularly limits on the chemicals, they are acknowledged health hazards.
PFOA was the subject of a class-action lawsuit against DuPont, its manufacturer; the chemical, also called C8, was the industrial precursor to GenX in manufacturing Teflon and other applications. An independent health panel set up as a result of the lawsuit found links between PFOA and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.PFOS, once largely manufactured by 3M, has been phased out by some companies, but not others, and has also been linked to health risks including kidney disease.
The GenX level was 28.1 ppt – below the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) ‘health goal’ of 140 ppt. The DHHS limit is not an enforceable regulation, only a ‘guideline,’ and many have called for a lower and more enforceable limit from both state and federal regulators.
The total level of the 45 PFAS chemicals Brunswick County tested for was 395.4 ptt. These have been identified as the most prevalent PFAS in the Cape Fear River, but there are others — the total number and nature of contaminants in the water remains a glaring unknown, and efforts to fund rigorous testing to catalog pollutants (and by extension polluters) were defeated in North Carolina’s general assembly by lobbyists, including the North Carolina Manufacturing Alliance, who claimed such testing would “open pandora’s box.”
While PFAS as a family of chemicals share similar traits – including the persistence in the environment that led to them being called ‘forever chemicals – there is limited toxicological data on the majority of them; limited information has hampered regulation as well as the establishment of health goals — for most PFAS there is neither.
Still, there is some consensus that PFAS can have a cumulative and collective effect on health. In other words, consuming more of a PFAS ‘cocktail’ – as it is often called – over time likely increases health risk.
About half of the PFAS total came from a single chemical, PFMOAA, which was found at levels of 195.6 ppt. PFMOAA was one of the most prevalent PFAS contaminants in the Cape Fear prior to Chemours agreement to institute capture processes at its facility about 90 miles upstream from Wilmington. Prior to this, combined PFAS levels were measured around 40,000 ppt — over a hundred times higher than current levels. PFMOAA made over 75 percent of that, according to a 2018 paper published in the Journal of the American Water Works Association, authored by Zach Hopkins, Mei Sun, Jamie DeWitt, Detlef Knappe, and others.
The chemical does not appear to be listed on the county’s weekly test results on finished (i.e. filtered) water; the weekly test results only include 25 chemicals – so it’s difficult to completely compare raw and treated contaminant levels. It’s also difficult to compare filtration efficiency to other utilities, because they use different treatment methods and, in CFPUA’s case, deal with ‘desorption’ that can cause the levels of some contaminants to be higher in treated water than in the raw water (more on that, here).
It does appear, based on a sample of treated water from May 31 (two days after the raw water sample was taken), that the treatment process continues to have little effect on GenX, which was measured at 24 ppt, a reduction of about 15 percent.