This is a developing story; it will be updated as more information becomes available.
Chemical compounds in the same family as GenX have been found in Jordan Lake and the Town of Cary’s drinking water, raising concerns that these substances are widespread in North Carolina.
It’s important to note that no GenX was found in any of the samples, the results were preliminary, and the sampling size was small.
The results are based on testing conducted by Duke University scientists P. Lee Ferguson and Heather Stapleton. In November, they collected three samples from Jordan Lake and four from faucets in Cary. They also collected one sample from Chapel Hill, two from Durham and nine from Robeson County.
Ferguson said he and Stapleton took water samples from the lake, as well as their own home faucets and those of their friends and colleagues. Using state-of-the-art methods, the researchers analyzed the water for seven types of perfluorinated compounds, which are categorized as “short-carbon chain” or “long- carbon chain,” depending on the number of carbon molecules.
In Cary, the levels of PFOAs and PFAs — the long-carbon types, including C8 —were below the health advisory of 70 parts per trillion set by the EPA. However, the levels exceeded New Jersey’s standard of 14 parts per trillion. Ferguson said.
But the combined levels of perfluorinated and polyfluorinated compounds — both short-chain and long-chain — exceeded 200 ppt, with the majority being the short-chain variety.
“Something’s going on with the shorter chain compounds in Jordan Lake and the drinking water treatment systems aren’t taking them out,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson said the health effects of the short-chain compounds are unknown but that it is believed that they don’t bioaccumulate and could be less harmful than their longer-chain cousins. However, the peer-reviewed science is still scarce.
Susan Moran, director of strategic communications for the Town of Cary, said the drinking water is safe. “Are there things in the water? Yes. But from a regulatory and scientific standpoint, there is nothing to worry about.” The town has tested its water, Moran said, and the levels of PFOAs and PFAs consistently fall under EPA’s advisory of 70 ppt.
Moran said the town is also working the the NC Department of Environmental Quality for guidance as the science regarding these compounds advances. “This is a new conversation for this area.”
Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina, criticized the Town of Cary’s response. “It saddens me when spokespersons are more concerned about meeting inadequately researched health standards than the public health of their communities.”
Ferguson and Stapleton conducted the sampling because they were concerned about the possibility that perfluorinated compounds could be present in drinking water in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. The source of the newly discovered chemicals is unclear. Ferguson and Stapleton took samples from the northern arm of the lake, near where municipal wastewater discharge enters it.
Chapel Hill’s wastewater treatment plant and Durham’s southern facility both discharge into tributaries that flow into Jordan Lake. “One of our concerns with these chemicals is the source,” Ferguson said. “For wastewater effluent it’s harder to pin down the sources.”
However, it’s possible that the contamination could be coming from farther upstream in the Haw River, where 1,4 dioxane has been detected. Industrial sources in the upper Haw are possible sources.
Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina said that industry’s control of the regulatory process jeopardizes both human health and the environment. “We are accepting things we should never have to,” she said.
Chapel Hill’s samples showed levels lower than 50 parts per trillion for short-chain and long-chain compounds. Durham and Robeson County recorded levels below 14 ppt.
“It’s not meant to be alarmist, but there is a real need to assess the broader suite of contaminants,” Ferguson told Policy Watch. “There may be a lot things we may be missing.”
Ferguson and Stapleton shared their findings with state environmental officials. Jamie Kritzer, communications director for the NC Department of Environmental Quality, said the agency has been in touch with the Town of Cary. In addition, DEQ plans to add the family of perfluorinated and polyfluorinated compounds to its ambient monitoring plan of Jordan and Falls Lake. DEQ is also working on a statewide monitoring plan.
“Our agency will use all available resources,” including DEQ staff and academic colleagues, to ensure the state’s drinking water is safe, Kritzer said. “It underscores the need for funding for our staff and other resources for us to do our job properly.”
Molly Diggins, director of the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club, reiterated that the legislature must fund DEQ to tackle the enormous problem of emerging contaminants. “Today’s news reaffirms that our state’s ongoing experience with GenX on the coast is not an isolated situation,” she said. “We anticipate that chemical contaminants in our drinking water supplies will continue to build as a major issue in North Carolina and nationally in 2018 and beyond. It will take a comprehensive and well-resourced initiative at the state level to ensure our drinking water is safe from threats about which we are learning more every day.”
Below: Town of Cary’s recent drinking water sampling results