The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it plans to set the nation’s first public drinking water standards for “forever chemicals,” furthering its efforts to protect public health.
The EPA proposes to set standards for six per- and -polyfluoroalkyl substances — collectively known as PFAS — including PFOS, PFOA and GENX. The GENX compound is just one of many PFAS that have been found abundantly in the Cape Fear River, contaminating drinking water for an estimated 300,000 people living downstream of the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant.
If enacted, the proposed regulation would require public water systems to monitor for the six PFAS chemicals. It would also require them to notify the public and reduce PFAS contamination if levels exceed the standards.
“This action has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses and marks a major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants,” the EPA said in a statement.
Beth Markesino of Wilmington is a founder of the Facebook activist group North Carolina Stop GenX in our Water. Markesino believes PFAS played a role in her son Samuel’s death at birth in 2016.
“My community drank high levels of these six chemicals without their knowledge or consent,” Markesino said. “The six PFAS chemicals are well-studied and show the harmful effects in humans at a very low level. I am grateful that the EPA made these limits based on sound scientific evidence. I look forward to the limits being enforced. I would never want anyone to go through the same loss my family has.”
The proposed drinking water standards would regulate PFOA and PFOS as individual pollutants, setting a maximum contaminant level of 4 parts per trillion in drinking water for each chemical. It would also regulate four other PFAS — PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX — as a class using a hazard index calculation to determine if the combined levels of those chemicals pose a potential human health risk.
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There are an estimated 5,000 different types of PFAS, and perhaps as many as 12,000. PFOA and PFOS are the oldest and most ubiquitous, even though their manufacture in the United States has been largely phased out over environmental concerns.
Those two PFAS and others have been linked to testicular, kidney and other types of cancers in laboratory animals. They have also been associated with pre-eclampsia, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, risk to a developing fetus, and other diseases. They are referred to as forever chemicals because they don’t break down easily in the environment, if ever.
“Communities across this country have suffered far too long from the ever-present threat of PFAS pollution. That’s why President Biden launched a whole-of-government approach to aggressively confront these harmful chemicals, and EPA is leading the way forward,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in the statement.
Regan is the former director of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
DuPont started manufacturing PFOA at its Fayetteville Works plant in Bladen County in the early 2000s. The compound was sent to other DuPont plants to make Teflon pans and other nonstick products. About 2009, DuPont switched from PFOA to GenX, a compound that Chemours continued to produce when it took over the plant in 2015. Investigators believe DuPont also had produced GenX as a byproduct at the plant since the early 1980s.
In June 2017, the Wilmington StarNews first reported that researchers from N.C. State University had found GenX and other PFAS at high concentrations in the Cape Fear River and in public drinking water. The discovery led to a lawsuit in 2019 filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of Cape Fear River Watch and the state.
Among other things, the lawsuit orders Chemours to reduce PFAS loading into the Cape Fear River by 99%.
Chemours has spent hundreds of millions since then in an effort to contain the contaminants, which continue to escape its property, these days largely through groundwater seeps. The company is building a giant retaining wall along the river.
Chemours said in a news release that it is aware of the EPA’s proposed drinking water standards and is reviewing the available information.
State environmental groups are encouraged by the EPA’s latest action.
“EPA has taken an essential step forward by proposing these critical drinking water standards, which are a necessary backstop to ensure that water flowing into our taps is not contaminated with PFOA, PFOS, GenX or the other PFAS included in today’s announcement,” said Geoff Gisler, program director at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
North Carolina, like most other states, does not have a maximum contaminant level for any type of PFAS in drinking water. It was using a federal health guideline of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS and 140 parts per trillion for GenX, but the state had been strongly considering lowering those substantially.
Last year, the EPA announced it would lower the federal health advisory for GenX to 10 parts per trillion, and the state was expected to follow suit.
For at least the past three years, the DEQ has been investigating industries that are releasing PFAS into the state’s lakes and rivers, largely through municipal sewage treatment plants. Most of those plants don’t have the capability to filter out the contamination. New Hanover and Brunswick counties have each spent millions of dollars on water filtration systems.
Once the EPA’s proposed maximum contaminant rule becomes final, public water systems will have three years to comply with the new regulations and will be required to monitor for the six chemicals. It will also require systems to notify the public and reduce PFAS contamination if levels exceed the proposed regulatory standards.
“North Carolina has been leading efforts to address forever chemicals in our drinking water, and today’s EPA announcement provides additional federal support and a roadmap for the public water systems in our state,” DEQ Secretary Elizabeth S. Biser said in a statement. “Having clear direction on national drinking water standards supports DEQ’s work with public water systems to protect the people of North Carolina.”
Greg Barnes is an investigative reporter for CityView. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.