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First in a series

“WILMINGTON – Raise your hand if you had heard about GenX before the summer of 2017.

Five years have passed since we first learned that the lower Cape Fear River, the drinking water source for more than 300,000 people, was being contaminated by GenX and a host of other man-made chemical compounds called PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

The news sent residents of communities in and around this area reeling. They had questions for which there were few to no answers, particularly when it came to how they could protect themselves against something they could not see, taste or smell in their water.

Perhaps even more frustrating, no one — not the government, not scientists — could tell them whether or how GenX and other PFAS discharging from a chemical manufacturing company some 80 miles upstream might affect their health.

North Carolina-based researchers have worked diligently to find some answers to these questions these past five years.

There have been tests to determine the most effective PFAS-removing water filtration systems. Blood samples collected from more than 300 willing participants in New Hanover County have been examined for the presence of GenX and other PFAS.

Studies exploring the potential health effects in living organisms dosed with some of the PFAS flowing into Cape Fear River have taken place in university laboratories from Greenville to Wilmington to the Triangle to Charlotte.

Meanwhile, public utilities in New Hanover and Brunswick counties are investing millions in upgrades, the costs of which have inevitably trickled down to their customers through nominal fee increases that, during a time when inflation is at a 40-year high, makes it no less painful on the purse.

Under a 2019 consent order between the state and Cape Fear River Watch, Chemours Co. must reduce at least 99% of PFAS it releases into the river, ground and air from its Fayetteville Works facility in Bladen County.

DuPont started using PFOA to make Teflon in the early 1950s. In 1980, the company began making vinyl ethers at its Fayetteville Works facility, emitting PFAS into the river, air and ground. Chemours Co. was founded in 2015 as a spinoff from DuPont.

The company has been mailing thousands of letters to addresses of private drinking water well owners in New Hanover, Brunswick, Pender and Columbus counties. The letters are kicking off a process, also required by the consent order, to identify which wells are eligible to be sampled.

There’s more to be done.

Emerging answers about emerging compounds

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency keeps track of the number of individual PFAS.

At last count, that number was around the order of 10,000.

‘We’ve studied a fraction,’ said Jamie DeWitt, a professor in East Carolina University’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. ‘That’s why I’ve been part of a group of scientists who have been calling for regulating PFAS as a class because there’s just so many different PFAS out there that we can’t possibly study them all in order to create regulation.’

Her research of PFAS stretches back to 2005 when she began looking into the health effects of legacy PFAS, chemical compounds that have been around the longest and largely phased out in developed countries. These include perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS, which was used to make things like stain-resistant fabrics, fire-fighting foams and food packaging.”…