Read the full article by Lisa Sorg (NC Policy Watch)

… “In 2020-2021, the GenX Exposure Study team collected blood samples from 1,020 people in three communities throughout the Cape Fear River Basin:

  • Pittsboro, 206 people on public water (2021)
  • New Hanover/Brunswick counties 232 (2020) and 282 (2021), all on public water
  • Fayetteville, 300 people (2021), all on private wells.

Scientists tested the blood for 44 types of PFAS. Four of them were found in nearly every person sampled:

  • PFOS 99.6%
  • PFOA 99%
  • PFHxS 99%
  • PFNA 96%

For each compound, all three communities in North Carolina had PFAS levels well above the U.S. median. And of the three, Pittsboro residents had the highest median levels of each compound in their blood. For example, the Pittsboro median for PFOS was 8 parts per billion, compared with 7 and 6 for Fayetteville and New Hanover/Brunswick counties, respectively. (A median is a ‘middle number,’ meaning half the numbers are above and half are below.)

‘That indicates widespread contamination in the Cape Fear River Basin,’ Nadine Kotlarz, a post-doctoral researcher at NC State University said.

About 1 million people live in the Cape Fear River Basin, which extends from Reidsville southeast through Pittsboro, Cary, Fayetteville, Brunswick and New Hanover counties on the coast.

Because PFAS are so widespread in the environment, their sources can be difficult to pinpoint. However, Pittsboro’s can be in part traced upstream, to industry that discharges wastewater to treatment plants in Greensboro, Burlington and Reidsville.

Traditional wastewater treatment methods can’t remove PFAS, so the compounds enter the waterways – the Haw River, the Cape Fear – unimpeded. Sludge, also known as biosolids, from wastewater treatment plants is often applied as fertilizer on agricultural fields. From there, PFAS can seep into the groundwater or run off into rivers and streams, and ultimately the drinking water supply.

In the Lower Cape Fear River Basin, from Fayetteville and points south, Chemours, formerly DuPont, is responsible for much of the PFAS contamination. Two types of PFAS were detected in the blood of lower basin residents that were rarely found in Pittsboro: Nafion Byproduct 2 and  PFO5DoA. Both compounds are either produced or a manufacturing byproduct at the Chemours plant, near the Bladen-Cumberland county line.

There are still inadequate data to determine the toxicity of PFO5DoA in people. But Jamie DeWitt, a toxicologist at East Carolina University who studies PFAS, said that an initial mouse study showed “this chemical is very toxic to mice.”

Researchers had to humanely euthanize mice in the highest-dose group within just a week. Even at lower doses of PFO5DoA, mice became very ill, DeWitt said.

Levels of PFO5DoA and Nafion Byproduct 2 did decrease in blood levels over a year, the study showed.

GenX, also produced at Chemours, was not detected in blood samples, likely because it has a short half-life of just a few days. In comparison, PFOA and PFOS have half-lives of as long as five years. (To illustrate how to calculate a half-life, imagine eating half of a pizza one day, then half of the remaining pizza the next, and half each day until the entire pie is gone.)

For the seven most commonly found PFAS, scientists also calculated the total amount in residents’ blood. This figure is important because people with cumulative levels above 2 parts per billion should discuss the findings with their health care providers. The NC Department of Health and Human Services recently issued guidance for health care providers on additional screening for potential PFAS-linked disorders.

Of the 1,020 people sampled, more than two thirds – 68.5% – had levels between 2 and 20 ppb. The clinical guidance says ‘sensitive populations’ with these levels have ‘the potential for adverse health effects’ These include high cholesterol, breast cancer and high blood pressure during pregnancy.

Nearly a third of study participants, 29%, were in the highest-risk group, those with cumulative PFAS blood levels above 20 ppb. This group is at a higher risk of adverse effects, and should be tested for thyroid function, kidney cancer, testicular cancer and ulcerative colitis, as well as for the potential disorders in people with lower PFAS levels.

The GenX Exposure Study team now plans to study health effects of PFAS, including following participants for as long as 20 years.” …