Chemours’ trademark unregulated chemical GenX is more toxic than previously understood, according to a final toxicity report released by the Environmental Protection Agency Monday.
The EPA’s new lifetime chronic reference dose for GenX, calculated with the most vulnerable populations in mind, is 3 parts per trillion (ppt). Concentrations of the chemical ingested over a lifetime at or below this threshold are unlikely to lead to negative health effects in humans, the report concludes.
This means adverse health effects may be anticipated in lifetime concentrations higher than this, with a new potential benchmark for a drinking water standard requested by clean water advocates at roughly 4 or 5 ppt.
GenX has not been tested on humans (formally, that is; hundreds of thousands in the Cape Fear region have been exposed for decades unwittingly, with still unknown health effects). Animal studies of ingested exposure to GenX reveal health effects to the liver, immune system, the development of offspring, and an association with cancer. “[T]he liver appears to be particularly sensitive” to GenX, the report states.
Effects caused by a cocktail of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals, dumped by DuPont and its spin-off Chemours into the Cape Fear River since at least the ‘80s, is unknown. With thousands of known PFAS, GenX is just one of four with a final EPA toxicity report; just PFOA and PFOS have a federal non-enforceable drinking water advisory limit, at 70 ppt combined; none are regulated at the federal level.
PFAS are omnipresent in the environment and in nearly all Americans’ blood. Used for their non-stick qualities, the compounds appear in everyday products, from cookware to furniture, makeup, and more.
The EPA based its GenX final toxicity assessment on new data, revised uncertainty factors, and an enhanced review process, the report states. Chemours told N.C. Policy Watch it was unaware of data that would support the EPA’s conclusions.
GenX’s new subchronic reference dose is at 30 ppt –– this means for short-term exposures between five and 90 days, adverse health effects may be anticipated for the most vulnerable populations in concentrations higher than this.
Since Cape Fear Public Utility Authority began regularly testing for GenX in 2018, levels have varied significantly. Among CFPUA’s weekly samples tested, GenX was detected at an average concentration higher than the new chronic toxicity reference dose, at 15 ppt in 2018. In 2019, samples averaged 11 ppt, and in 2020, 7 ppt. 2021 GenX levels averaged 6 ppt.
Levels of GenX were as high as 42 ppt in 2018, 36 ppt in 2019, 12 ppt in 2020, and 11 ppt this year. For five consecutive weeks at the beginning of 2018, GenX was tested at 30 ppt or higher, meeting and exceeding the EPA’s just-released subchronic reference dose.
Combined PFAS (for which there is no federal or state standard, toxicity report, or health advisory) have been tested as high as 130,000 ppt in an archived 2015 sample examined in 2019. The sample used enhanced testing methods, collected adjacent to where the region sources its raw water from on the Cape Fear River in Riegelwood.
This sample contained a “fairly typical” concentration of GenX at 780 ppt, and provided “a reasonable snapshot of PFAS levels” prior to the June 2017 public disclosure, according to a paper authored by Dr. Detlef Knappe. Knappe is one of the same researchers who first discovered the chemicals in CFPUA finished drinking water in a published scientific paper in November 2016 that he sent to DEQ officials; the public didn’t become aware until the StarNews featured Knappe’s research in June 2017.
“Prior to the publicity that this issue got back in 2017, we were exposed to orders of magnitude more of everything than what we’re getting now,” said Dr. Larry Cahoon, a UNCW limnologist. “And I blame, obviously, the producers for that. But I also blame the regulatory failures of the state of North Carolina for that.”
Cahoon wrote a paper in 2019 that detailed how Chemours formally notified DEQ of its discharges in 2002, and the state never responded. Being strained on resources (DEQ’s budget has been slashed by about a third over a decade, severely limiting its regulatory capacity) is not an excuse, Cahoon said: “They knew that there were problems and they did nothing.”
In North Carolina, the current drinking water health goal for GenX –– a non-enforceable gauge –– is 140 ppt. This goal was first put in place the same day StarNews’ article ran, first at 71,000 ppt then quickly lowered to 140 ppt.
The goal has no regulatory teeth but is designed to alert the public of health risks.
Put in place by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Resources, the health advisory was somewhat atypical at the time, as NCDHHS does not normally issue guidance on public water supplies; it normally relies on the Department of Environmental Quality for this. Plus, the EPA had not yet issued a toxicology report on the chemical ––a draft version of that report didn’t arrive until 2018.
NCDHHS used a formula to account for bottle-fed infants (the most vulnerable population) to arrive at its draft health advisory.
Given the new federal yardstick, Vaughn Hagerty, CFPUA’s spokesperson, wrote in an email that “it’s unclear whether it would be appropriate to simply swap EPA’s reference dose for the one the State used to arrive at 140 ppt without any alteration to the rest of the calculation.” Therefore, CFPUA is leaving the determination on how to update the standing GenX health goal up to NCDHHS’s experts.
“[L]et’s remember that any GenX that’s in our community’s water is there because Chemours and DuPont put it in the river,” Hagerty wrote in an email.
CFPUA is investing $46 million on granular activated carbon filters to beef up its existing advanced treatment technology. Utilities have filed a flurry of lawsuits against Chemours and Dupont in an attempt to recoup expenses.
Scheduled to come online in June 2022, the new filters are expected to drop GenX in finished water to 1 ppt.
The chemical was measured at 87 ppt the month after public disclosure in Brunswick County drinking water. In the latest sample taken Sept. 30, it was detected at nearly 3 ppt. The week prior, it was measured at 8 ppt.
“The EPA’s latest toxicity report is an important first step, but there is still more to be done,” Brunswick County Chairman Randy Thompson wrote in an email. “Providing the EPA time to finalize its research for this advisory will better allow utilities to make the right decisions in the long term for our residents and customers.”
The Northwest Water Treatment Plant uses conventional water treatment methods, which cannot reduce PFAS in the finished drinking water supply. Combined PFAS levels vary widely, reaching as much as 350 ppt in May of this year to dropping to 70 ppt in late September.
Brunswick County is spending in excess of $129 million to expand and upgrade its plant with low-pressure reverse osmosis technology, expected to remove nearly all PFAS present in the raw water supply when it comes online in 2023.
“The County is seeking monetary damages from Chemours to hold it responsible for the millions of dollars it is spending to install this new treatment system,” Thompson wrote. “The lawsuit remains active and ongoing.”
Compared to its draft, the EPA’s final toxicology report showed the chemical is approximately 26 times as much more toxic than previously understood, with the former safe chronic level tentatively set at 80 ppt. A replacement for the phased-out PFOA, GenX was supposed to be less harmful compared to its predecessor; it appears that may no longer be the case. PFOA’s chronic reference dose is 20 ppt, set by the EPA in 2018.
“I’m frankly disturbed that it shows, apparently, that the toxicity of GenX is even worse than that of PFOA,” Cahoon said. “We had been assured by the companies, Dupont, so forth, that GenX was supposed to be safer.”
Four ppt –– the amount when adverse health effects may be likely in humans –– represents four drops of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
“If a few parts per trillion are toxic, then we have a very big problem on our hands and it’s a very expensive one,” Cahoon said.
DHHS stalls on action
As first reported by The News & Observer, NCDHHS said it won’t update its health advisory goal in light of the EPA’s final toxicity report this week. The department is waiting for the EPA’s forthcoming national drinking water advisory level for GenX, which the agency has publicly pledged it plans to deliver by spring 2022.
The EPA report, released Monday, is a key step the agency must take before finally implementing an enforceable standard at a still unmapped date. In the toxicity report, the EPA stated policymakers can use it and other available information “to determine if, and when, it is appropriate to take action to reduce exposure to GenX chemicals.”
Asked to explain the reasoning behind why it was waiting for the EPA advisory level, instead of acting now or sooner to lower its 140 ppt health advisory goal, an NCDHHS spokesperson said the department was waiting “in order to maintain alignment with the EPA’s scientific guidance.”
Many local advocates, including at least one state senator, are disappointed in NCDHHS’s hesitancy to act –– especially since it previously issued an advisory goal for GenX absent of a federal advisory.
Senator Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, said the department should update its health advisory for the chemical, now that it is armed with the new research and data.
“There is no reason to wait when we have scientific evidence that shows GenX is more toxic than we first believed,” the senator wrote in a statement. “DHHS can always make additional adjustments to its health advisory once the EPA publishes its national drinking water advisory level.”
Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover, said she has the utmost respect and confidence in NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen: “I know that she will implement recommendations as soon as it is reasonably possible. And I plan to follow up with her office to understand when that will happen.”
The representative said she was grateful “our native son,” EPA administrator and former DEQ Secretary Michael Regan, has pledged to prioritize forever chemicals. “When it comes to people’s health and safety, we can’t move fast enough.”
Dana Sargent, executive director of Cape Fear River Watch, said she was disappointed by NCDHHS’s inaction. “DHHS has the science provided by the federal government to update the state’s health goal,” she said. “And I think that they should do that immediately.”
If DHHS lowered its GenX health goal to 4 or 5 ppt from the current 140 ppt, it would immediately trigger a series of actions pursuant to the consent order Cape Fear River Watch, DEQ, and Chemours entered into in 2019.
Chemours, at its own cost, would have to provide whole-house filtration systems or municipal water access (so long as the cost is less than $75,000 to connect) to well owners whose water tested with GenX concentrations higher than the health goal.
“If anybody in the well-owner community has GenX at 4 parts per trillion, if the health goal is at 4 parts per trillion, they’re automatically entitled to this,” Sargent said. “That is a hard, fast change that would happen without any changes to the consent order.”
As of March 2021, 5,701 wells have been tested in the vicinity of Chemours’ Fayetteville plant, with three out of four property owners qualifying for Chemours-funded water treatment based on the levels of PFAS present in their water.
“The industry has been continually telling us that GenX is safer than PFOA, PFOS,” Sargent said. “We’ve been shown that that’s just been patently false.”
A board member of Cape Fear River Watch, Cahoon said there have been some discussions surrounding the possibility of revising the terms of the consent order, which was crafted to leave open room for new science. “The consent agreement is not cast in concrete,” he said.
Last month, EPA administrator Regan visited North Carolina, where he hosted a press conference to announce his agency’s PFAS strategic roadmap. He put his professional reputation on the line by vowing to take action to regulate PFAS compounds once and for all, acknowledging those affected by the crisis are tired of platitudes. “Trust must be earned. I know that you need to see action,” he said.
After years of playing nice, both Regan and Governor Roy Cooper were the harshest they’ve ever publicly been on the Trump administration’s EPA, which they described as inexcusably sluggish.
Community activist and founder of Clean Cape Fear, Emily Donovan, heard Regan’s words in person in Raleigh on Oct. 18, and said she held back tears as he commended community activists –– a group that has long been cast aside as nearly a nuisance.
“The first thing I felt was just validation, there was a lot of strong language around recognizing contaminated communities and community activism,” she said. “That was important to hear, and surprising to hear.”
At the same time, the speeches from Regan, his successor, and the governor all heralded DEQ’s actions in fighting Chemours. For those with a long memory, the bragging rights failed to land. DEQ only levied the largest fine ever issued in the state’s history in 2018 against Chemours –– $13 million, about 1% of the company’s profits that year –– after Cape Fear River Watch sued them to act.
“If you’re taking victory laps, then you should really take credit where credit is due,” Donovan said. “It was us, it was the community activists, that were hammering DEQ to do something more to stop to stop the active releases.
“I really lay this at the steps of the Cooper administration because this is his responsibility ultimately.”
Absent federal rules, PFAS are regulated to some degree in at least 19 states. Though several local legislators have attempted to forward bills in recent years to address PFAS research, cleanup, testing, and accountability, none have landed.
“It’s embarrassing that our state legislators are pretending there’s not a problem,” Donovan said.
Action won’t happen unless public outcry generates political momentum, she said. Four years into the fight, Donovan said it’s been tough as interest has faded or the public has grown numb to the horrors committed: “This has been a lonely fight for a while. And it shouldn’t be.”
“Why are county commissioners not passing resolutions? Why are they not demanding that their state reps represent them correctly? Why is everybody pretending that this contamination crisis is over when it’s not?”
Send tips and comments to Johanna F. Still at email@example.com