Environment, Trump Administration

NC State professor “retained” by Chemours is basis for claims that DEQ groundwater standards too stringent

NC State University professor of toxicology Damien Shea says his analysis of GenX shows current health advisory goals are too stringer. Shea has been “retained” by Chemours for his expertise. (Photo: NC State University)

This post has been updated with comments from Damien Shea, who responded the day after this story was posted.

Analysis by a NC State University professor and scientist paid by Chemours is the basis of the company’s claim that voluntary state groundwater standards for GenX are too stringent.

Damien Shea is a professor of environmental toxicology at NC State and the principal investigator and University Director of the Department of Interior’s Southeast Climate Science Center.

 Although his work is widely published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, Shea also testified at a federal trial as an expert witness on behalf of BP. He told  the court that data from the Deep Horizon oil spill showed there was “no harmful exposure from oil-related chemicals or dispersants in nearly all of the area investigated.”

Federal government experts had criticized Shea’s findings, saying that they were based on too broad of an area to be definitive. NOAA scientists found large die-offs of marine species, including turtles, and lingering reproductive effects on survivors.

Last week Chemours called the state’s interim groundwater standard of 10 ppt for GenX — based on the EPA’s benchmark — “arbitrary, unfair and capricious.”  Chemours made these claims in a 30-page response to the Division of Air Quality’s notice that it could prohibit the company from emitting any GenX or related compounds from its Fayetteville Works facility.

Chemours told DEQ that internal company studies found 70,000 ppt was safe for groundwater and drinking water. Shea’s analysis is included the 950 pages of supplementary documents. He wrote that someone would have to drink 1,400 liters of water per day “from the most contaminated tap for their whole life” for their health to be harmed.

Shea argues that while GenX can cause liver tumors in mice, that is not applicable to humans. However, exposure to GenX can be linked to many non-cancer but equally harmful health effects on the liver.

Nor do Shea’s findings address harm to other organisms, both land and aquatic.

Shea could not be reached for comment. 

Shea said that he had raised concerns about the procedure and data the state used last summer to determine the provisional health goal for drinking water. Six months later Chemours contacted him, Shea said, and asked if he would complete his analysis and put it in writing.

“My analysis and the documents I wrote are entirely consistent with the opinions I expressed before Chemours ever contacted me,” She said. “I can assure you that I would provide an objective an unbiased analysis of the data regardless of who was financially supporting the work.”

DEQ said it is still reviewing Chemours’ response.

Scientists often debate findings and research. However, when a scientist receives payment from a private company for their analysis, it raises questions about the independence of the methods.

Overall, peer-reviewed science is scarce on GenX, regardless of where the compound is entering the environment — groundwater, drinking water or air. In fact, the lack of peer-reviewed studies is one of the main challenges facing the state’s Science Advisory Board as it tries to recommend a drinking water standard for GenX.

There are no studies involving humans, and only two on rats and mice. The state health department used one available rodent study in establishing the first provisional health goal of 70,000 ppt for drinking water; a second rodent study prompted state officials to reduce the acceptable level to 140 ppt.

The EPA has not set a groundwater or a drinking water standard for GenX.

Jamie Bartram, chairman of the Science Advisory Board, declined to comment on Chemours’ findings. The SAB, he told Policy Watch, “is still studying the issue. It would be inappropriate for us to pre-empt its conclusions.”

The SAB could make its recommendation on a drinking water health goal in June.

Despite assertions to the contrary, Chemours in North Carolina and its corporate parent, DuPont, have not been transparent in their dealings with the public and DEQ. Chemours has repeatedly failed to disclose the full extent of spills, discharges and air emissions. DuPont hid internal studies showing similar compounds, PFOA and PFOS, harmed public health, while those very substances were entering the drinking water supplies in Ohio and West Virginia.

Chemours is not alone in this conduct. It’s common for companies’ internal studies to downplay or deny health and environmental harm from their products: the tobacco industry and cigarettes, the biotech industry and pesticides, Westinghouse and PCBs.

It’s also common for industry influence to shape EPA decisions. But under EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, there is not even a pretense that science is the foundation of its rule-making.

As Chemours accused state environmental officials of being too tough on the company regarding groundwater standards for GenX, national media reported that the EPA intentionally hid damning data on the health effects of similar fluorinated compounds.

Several national media outlets, including the Washington Post and Politico, reported that the EPA has suppressed a study showing that PFOA and PFOS are dangerous to human health at lower levels than previously thought.

The EPA in 2016 set a health advisory — which is not enforceable — of 70 ppt combined for PFOA and PFOS. According to national media, federal toxicologists found that exposure at one-sixth of that level could be dangerous for sensitive populations, such as infants and breastfeeding mothers.

However, EPA officials did not want to disclose this information because it could be a “public relations nightmare,” especially for the Defense Department. Military bases have been contaminated with PFOA and PFOS because those compounds are found in firefighting foam, used in training exercises.

In Atlantic, NC, two drinking water wells at the Marine Air Station at Cherry Point tested above the lifetime health advisory of 70 ppt, according to results released May 4. That investigation is continuing.

 

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