Environment, public health

Higher rates of birth defects found in four southeastern counties; link to PFAS uncertain

Illustration of human brain

Several factors can cause brain-related birth defects, including genetics and environmental exposures.

Rates of birth defects affecting the brain, heart and central nervous system were higher than the state average in areas of southeastern North Carolina from 2003 to 2014, the state Department of Health and Human Services announced today. The affected counties are Bladen, Brunswick, Cumberland and New Hanover, where GenX and other per- and poly- fluorinated compounds (PFAS) have been detected in drinking water.

However, DHHS said the study results can’t establish a link between the anomalies and PFAS. The number of cases was small and varied from year to year.

According to a DHHS report, the prevalence of brain reduction defects was higher in Bladen, Brunswick and Cumberland counties. While microcephaly —  an abnormally small brain — and hydrocephaly — an accumulation of spinal fluid around the brain — were more prevalent in New Hanover County. The higher prevalence of these birth defects, which included some related to heart development, was not confined to the lower Cape Fear region, DHHS said.

The prevalence of total brain defects varied substantially across the state, DHHS said. They can be caused by genetic, environmental exposure or even unknown factors.

There were 3,702 reported cases of all types of brain defects in North Carolina between 2003 and 2014. Bladen County reported 20; Pender, 32; Brunswick, 60; New Hanover, 130; and 220 Cumberland. When adjusted for population, these numbers were higher than the state average.

There are no national figures available to compare North Carolina’s rates with the rest of the US. Nor was data available for babies born at federal or military facilities, such as Womack Army Medical Center in Cumberland County. Infants born at military facilities are only included if transferred to a non-military hospital for care.

DHHS chose to analyze birth defects data because some animal studies have reported weak associations between PFAS exposure and birth defects; however, DHHS said these studies have important limitations. Animal studies, particularly using rodents, don’t necessarily reflect outcomes in humans.


Thousands of people live near log fumigation operations; Royal Pest Solutions fined for methyl bromide emissions violations


An aeria map shows the location of a log fumigation facility and the nearest home 220 feet away.

A log fumigation facility operated by Flowers Timber in Seven Springs is just 220 feet — less than a length of a football field — from the nearest home. (Photo: Google Earth via DEQ)

1500 words, 8 minute read

More than 4,000 people live within a mile and a half of North Carolina’s four log fumigation facilities, and some are just 220 to 630 feet away –equivalent to the length of one to two football fields.

These residents would be the highest at risk of chronic exposure to methyl bromide that drifted onto their property. And there are no state or federal regulations to protect the neighbors and the general public from methyl bromide in ambient air.

“We don’t want adverse effects happening to people at that fence line,” Division of Air Quality Director Mike Abraczinskas told the Environmental Management Commission’s Air Quality Committee yesterday. The committee discussed temporary rules to set levels of the toxic compound escaping beyond the property lines of log fumigation operations. Update: The commission voted 4-3 not to adopt temporary rules. Instead the proposal will undergo a lengthier process in permanent rule-making, which delays DEQ’s ability to implement enforceable limits on ambient air levels.

Methyl bromide can harm human health, including neurological, reproductive, respiratory, kidney, liver and esophageal damage, as well as nasal lesions. Because of those effects and its damage to the ozone layer, methyl bromide has been largely  banned internationally. However, there are a few “critical exemptions” to kill pests, including the fumigation of some fruits and logs for export, as well as  dried country ham, which can contain mites.

In log fumigation, the wood is placed inside shipping containers, which are then pumped with methyl bromide gas. After 16 to 72 hours, the containers are opened, and the gas escapes into the air. Facilities in North Carolina don’t use pollution controls on the containers, although that technology is available.

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While temporary rules would at least buy the Division of Air Quality and the EMC time to craft permanent ones, there is already resistance from the NC Department of Agriculture. According to state documents, agriculture officials told DAQ that “logs are a big export business” and the department “would be concerned if this approach ended it.”

The Department of Commerce also questioned whether the proposed rules would regulate the wood pellet industry. Since those operations don’t use methyl bromide, they would not be subject to them.

An aerial photo showing homes 610 feet and 463 feet from a fumigation facility in Chadbourn, in Columbus County.

Nearly half of the 529 people living within 1.5 miles of the Chadbourn facility are Black. Two homes lie even closer.

Current North Carolina air permits do limit overall annual emissions of methyl bromide from the facilities themselves. But  DAQ is asking the EMC to temporarily establish ambient air level limits at .005 parts milligrams per cubic meter for a chronic exposure. (This is also listed in some documents as the equivalent of 1.3 parts per billion.)

This is a minimum risk level at which no adverse health effects can be expected in the general public if they were exposed every day, all day. State regulators said the level was calculated based on the EPA’s best available science, but that it needs updated.

The proposed temporary rule is intended to protect the general public and doesn’t include occupational exposures, although permanent regulations could do so. 

This .005 ppm threshold is the same as adopted by South Carolina, Minnesota and Massachusetts. Six other states’ chronic exposure levels are not as stringent. They use annual, eight-hour or one-hour exposures to set their limits, which the industry prefers. Using annual calculations could dilute the actual daily exposures, while shorter time frames would constitute acute exposures, more applicable to workers onsite.

DAQ staff used computer modeling to estimate ambient air levels at the fenceline of four existing log fumigation facilities. Based on the amount of methyl bromide used and the type of logs fumigated (hardwoods require more gas than softwoods, like pine), none of the current facilities would comply with the proposed .005 ppm level — even if they aerated just one container per day.

Malec Brothers, which is proposing to operate a facility in Columbus County, stated in its air permit application that it would fumigate about 45 containers daily.

DAQ has asked Royal Pest Solutions, the primary log fumigation company in the Southeast, for feedback on the draft rules and preliminary modeling. State officials have received no response, Abraczinskas said.

Two of the current facilities are located in predominantly communities of color: Royal Pest Solutions in Chadbourn and Flowers Timber in Seven Springs.

Nearly half of the 529 people living within 1.5 miles of the Chadbourn operation in Columbus County are Black. Three percent are Latinx and 1 percent are American Indian, according to the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screen.

Nearly 800 people live within that distance of the Flowers Timber operation in Seven Springs. A third are Latinx; 23 percent are Black.

Two Wilmington facilities operated by RPS — one at 3701 River Road and another at 2200 Burnett Road — are not in large communities of color. However, some of the 3,600 people who live nearby might get a double dose: Parts of the 1.5-mile buffers for each operation overlap.

Other than routine air permitting and reviews, the state paid little attention to methyl bromide until earlier this year. That’s when Malec Brothers applied for an air permit for a fumigation facility in Columbus County, near the small towns of Delco and Riegelwood. Residents packed public hearings, objecting to the permit. DAQ, in turn, put that permit, and other pending applications, on hold.

At the time, Malec Brothers officials — who are Australian — said there was no economically feasible technology to control methyl bromide emissions. They suggested using sandbags and duct tape to control errant emissions. But now the company is importing equipment by Mebrom — an Australian company — for a test to be conducted at the proposed facility in Delco. DAQ and the state Department of Agriculture will oversee the tests, said Michael Pjetraj, DAQ deputy director.

Mebrom uses scrubbers and thermal destruction — which would also be subject to air emissions rules — to capture and reduce methyl bromide emissions. The technology has yet to be launched commercially.

Value Recovery and Nordiko, the latter of which is also Australian, use carbon-based technology. These methods are used in the US and internationally. Cost ranges from $35 to $270 per aerated container. The number of containers fluctuates, depending on market demand.

Concurrently, DAQ and the EMC would deliberate on permanent rules, which would be open to public comment and hearings. Those regulations also require an economic impact analysis.

“We want to protect the public from methyl bromide and maintain our market position,” Abraczinskas said.

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Commentary, Courts & the Law, News

Damning new report: NC General Assembly is forcing state judges to “criminalize poverty”

A new report from the good people at the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund is shining new light on an important area in which the General Assembly has been doing its worst to attack and undermine the independence of the judiciary: the micromanagement of court fines and fees.

The report is entitled “Forcing Judges to Criminalize Poverty: Eroding Judicial Independence in North Carolina” and in it, authors Gene Nichol and Heather Hunt build on their past research efforts regarding the burdensome nature of court fines and fees for poor people. As Nichol and Hunt explain, state lawmakers have, through their repeated enactment of news laws in recent years limiting the ability of judges to use their discretion in meting out fines and fees, done great damage the basic concept of of an independent judiciary.

This is from the introduction:

In 2017, the legislature piled on. It amended the court fees law to prohibit any waiver unless “notice and opportunity to be heard” was presented to all government entities potentially receiving funds from court fees. The notice must proceed by first class mail, to apparently hundreds of agencies, at least 15 days prior to any granted waiver. It, too, is a first-in-the-nation hurdle — consuming court time and money and requiring secondary hearings. State judges reportedly believe the goal of the agency notice is to make “the process to waive a court fee so burdensome” that judges simply won’t bother — tightening the screws on judicial discretion. Early this year the waiver law was altered again, demanding that the AOC report annually to a legislative oversight committee “on the implementation of the notice … to government agencies” requirement.

We make the claim here that the mandated “shaming” report and the absurdly burdensome agency notice requirement unconstitutionally interfere with the independence and integrity of North Carolina courts. The Supreme Court of North Carolina, echoing the state constitution’s demand that “the legislative, executive and judicial powers be forever separate and distinct,” has held that the separation of powers principle is violated “when the actions of one branch prevent another branch from performing its constitutional duties.” The General Assembly has given North Carolina courts the power to waive most court-ordered fees under state law. Despite that grant of authority, the annual waiver report and the uselessly laborious agency notice requirement are designed to place a heavy (legislatively-crafted) thumb upon the scales of such judicial determinations. A legislature may grant courts jurisdiction to adjudicate various matters. It may not, having granted such authority, then attempt to compel judges to exercise that power in favor of (or against) a particular litigant. Doing so breaches the independence required by American courts. The breach is made even more worrisome when waiver is, in numerous instances, mandated by the United States Constitution….

Of course, the North Carolina General Assembly’s treatment of court fee waivers is hardly its only recent attack on the integrity and independence of the state court system. It has, in the past decade, ended public financing in judicial elections, re-introduced partisan judicial elections, curbed jurisdiction in constitutional challenges, intervened by statute to protect a Republican incumbent justice, manipulated the size of the court of appeals, eliminated judicial primaries, re-districted disfavored Wake and Mecklenburg county courts, moved to reduce gubernatorial appointments, sought to take over the judicial appointment process and threatened judges with the prospect of two year terms. The head of the Republican Party has threatened to impeach judges who rule against the party. So, for North Carolina legislators, interfering with the independence of courts is hardly foreign ground. The General Assembly’s anti-waiver scheme, however, marries two of the legislature’s principal themes of the last decade: attacking the independent functioning of the courts and crushing the prospects of low-income North Carolinians. It is unconstitutional to force judges to step on the necks of poor Tar Heels.

Click here to read and share the full report.


Two amendments North Carolinians should have been voting on (and that would’ve pased)

North Carolina’s conservative legislative majorities would have never allowed it, but here are two constitutional amendments adopted by voters in other states this week that would have done vastly more for our state than the dreadful and deceptive proposals that appeared on our ballot:

#1 – A minimum wage hike – As the Economic Policy Institute reports:

…[V]oters in Missouri and Arkansas gave overwhelming approval to ballot measures that will raise their state’s minimum wage over the next several years, lifting pay for a combined 1 million workers. In Missouri, 62 percent of voters elected to raise the state minimum wage from its current $7.85 to $12 an hour in 2023. In Arkansas, 68 percent of voters supported a measure that will raise the state minimum wage to $11 per hour in 2021 from its current value of $8.50.

The increase in Arkansas will raise pay for an estimated 300,000 workers (about a quarter of the state’s wage-earning workforce). The Missouri increase will lift pay for 677,000 workers (also about a quarter of wage-earners in the state.) In both cases, the majority of workers who will get a raise are women, most work full time, and they come from families with modest incomes.

#2 – Nonpartisan redistricting to bring an end to gerrymandering – This is from Wired.com:

Americans remain sharply divided at the ballot box, from which political party they support to initiatives on issues like climate change. But they consistently voted against one thing on Tuesday: gerrymandering. In Michigan, Missouri, and Colorado, voters overwhelmingly passed ballot initiatives to put an end to this practice; as of Wednesday evening, another in Utah held onto a slight lead. They join another initiative passed in Ohio earlier this year.

These initiatives either set up independent redistricting commissions or vastly limit the ability of a single party to unilaterally draw the lines. That could dramatically change the electoral map when districts are redrawn in 2021 and, if it works as planned, could create more districts where voters get to choose their representatives—not the other way around.

Previous polls confirm that had such amendments appeared on the ballot here, both would have passed by a mile. As the composition of the General Assembly gradually and inexorably changes to genuinely reflect the voters of our state, let’s hope North Carolinians keep banging the drum for causes like this that would actually improve our state and the lives of our people.


Black sheriffs make history in sweep of seven largest NC counties

Gerald Baker unseated long-time Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison

An interesting and underreported trend emerging from yesterday’s elections: a historic sweep of black candidates in county sheriff’s races.

The state’s seven largest counties – Buncombe, Cumberland, Durham, Forsyth, Guilford, Mecklenburg and Wake – all elected black men to their county’s top law enforcement positions. Five of those counties – Buncombe, Cumberland, Guilford, Durham, Forsyth – did so for the first time ever.

Each of the new sheriffs will replace a white man in those roles, several of whom are are long-serving GOP institutions in their counties.

In Guilford County Danny Rogers ended the 24-year run of Sheriff BJ Barnes, a Republican figure so powerful and popular he was considered largely unbeatable.

Issues of racial profiling, advancement of minorities and immigration played a part in the campaign.

That was also the case in Wake County, where Gerald Baker upset long-time Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison.

In Forsyth Democrat Bobby Kimbrough Jr. defeated five-term incumbent Sheriff Bill Schatzman, a Republican. In comments after his victory he said his campaign was about building bridges and said he’ll serve all the county’s citizens regardless of race.

In Cumberland County Sheriff Ennis Wright has already been serving as sheriff, appointed by the county commissioners after the retirement of his predecessor, Moose Butler. With last night’s election, Wright becomes the first elected black sheriff in Cumberland. Butler, a Democrat himself, retired two years into his sixth term. He endorsed Wright.

Quentin Miller will be Buncombe County’s first Black sheriff.

A national discussion of racial inequities in policing led to more black sheriff’s candidates this year and those issues playing a larger role in general elections.

In Buncombe County, Quentin Miller’s campaign addressed those issues head-on. In comments to the Citizen-Times newspaper, he cast his historic election as the beginning of a community reconciliation.

“We now must work together as a community,” Miller told the Citizen-Times. “We must come together with the local government, with the communities and law enforcement as one. We have to address our issues in that fashion, in that way. And we all must have a place at the table and we must learn to work together to solve our issues and problems.”

And in Pitt County, Paula Dance achieved three firsts – becoming the first female and the first African American to be elected sheriff.  Dance, who has 28 years of law enforcement experience, will be the first black female sheriff in North Carolina. (Thanks to all of the Policy Watch readers who made us aware of Paula Dance’s victory and accomplishments.)

Paula Dance defeated Republican Gary Weaver to become Pitt County’s new sheriff.