EPA: Two types of PFAS far more toxic than previously understood

Sampling locations for PFOA, PFOS and GenX (Map: DEQ)

The EPA released data yesterday that suggests two types of PFAS are more toxic than previously understood, which could trigger a drastic reduction in what the agency considers acceptable amounts in drinking water.

The data showed that PFOA and PFOS were found to cause health problems at much lower reference doses by thousands of times. The reference dose is the maximum amount of a toxic chemical that can be ingested, but that doesn’t result in an excess risk of cancer or other health disorders.

The EPA has forwarded the data to its Science Advisory Board for review. If the SAB agrees with the findings, the federal and North Carolina health advisory goal for PFOA would be nearly 14,000 times more stringent. Instead of 70 ppt, the goal would be reduced to .005 ppt, a minute amount. The EPA has said data shows that PFOA is likely carcinogenic, meaning it’s been linked to cancer.

For PFOS, the health advisory goal would be 3,000 times stricter, at a level of .02 ppt.

A health advisory goal is not legally enforceable, but it is among the steps toward a national drinking water standard, which is law.

There are thousands of types of PFAS, also known as perfluorinated and polyfluoroalkyl compounds. They are used in myriad products, including Teflon cookware, floor waxes, water- and stain-resistant upholstery and clothing, food packaging, and firefighting foams.  

Exposure to some of these compounds, including GenX, has been already been linked to several types of cancer, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, high blood pressure during pregnancy, low birth weight, and thyroid disorders.  

In North Carolina, PFOA and PFOS have been detected in many drinking water supplies. Over the last two years, monitoring in the Lower Cape Fear River Basin has consistently shown levels that, if the new health advisory goals were in place today, would far exceed them. (Before November 2019, sampling data is not reliable because laboratory testing methods weren’t sensitive enough to detect low levels of the compounds.)

PFOA and PFOS results November 2019-July 2021
(minimum, maximum and average, all in parts per trillion)
Bladen Bluffs Water Treatment Plant
PFOA: 2 ppt • 7.6 ppt • 3.86
PFOS: 2 ppt • 9.8 ppt • 3.70

Brunswick County WTP
PFOA: 2.0 • 7.6 • 4.0
PFOS: 4.3 • 16.4 • 12.0

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority
PFOA: 1.81 • 3.57 • 2.49
PFOS: 1.06 • 3.55 • 2.0

Pender County WTP
PFOA: 1.16 • 4.8 • 2.7
PFOS: 1.49 • 3.34 • 2.3

Chemours Fayetteville Works discharge, Outfall 002
PFOA: 4.125 •  52 • 8.7
PFOS: 3.2  45.2 • 10.9

After thinking it had “dodged a bullet,” Pittsboro reports increase in 1,4-Dioxane in drinking water

The Haw River, as viewed from the Bynum bridge. The river has been contaminated with 1,4-Dioxane; sources include the City of Greensboro, which is upstream. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Just days ago, Pittsboro officials said they considered the town “lucky,” thinking a slug of 1,4-Dioxane from the City of Greensboro had bypassed its water intake on the Haw River. But new test results today have prompted town staff to say they are “concerned by the uptick in concentration in in raw water samples.”

Those samples of untreated water from Nov. 12 show levels of the likely carcinogen at 9.8 parts per billion, almost five times the levels in raw water just two days earlier. Treated water, which is sent to homes, contained concentrations of just above 4 ppb.

The EPA has set a health advisory goal of 35 ppb in drinking water, which represents a 1-in-10,000 excess lifetime cancer risk. That is not as protective as the 1-in-1 million cancer risk that the EPA uses for chemicals that have no safe dose; if that standard were applied to 1,4-Dioxane, the maximum amount in drinking water would be 0.35 ppb — far above what Pittsboro is reporting.

However, research is incomplete on 1,4-Dioxane, and the EPA has yet to set legally enforceable standards for the compound.

“While the numbers remain under the EPA advisory level, staff is concerned that sample results may soon eclipse that suggested concentration level” — 35 parts per billion, Town Manager Chris Kennedy said in a press release. “The Town is continuing to draw only the bare minimum of raw water to keep from inundating our system with contaminated water.

Routine sampling showed Greensboro’s TZ Osborne wastewater treatment plant illegally discharged the contamination on Wednesday, Nov. 3, but the city did not receive the lab results until Monday, Nov. 8, at 11:20 a.m.  The amount of 1,4-Dioxane in the original discharge was 767 parts per billion; that’s more than 2,100 times the EPA’s and the state’s health advisory goal for surface water.

Pittsboro officials believed the slug of 1,4-Dioxane had passed its water intake during a time of low demand. However, several residents commented on social media that the slug was merely delayed by low stream flow in the Haw River. Based on today’s results, those concerns appear to be valid.

According to Greensboro data, on Nov. 8, five days after the discharge, samples of the Haw River near Glencoe, showed levels of 1,4-Dioxane at 99 ppb. Glencoe is 35 miles north and upstream of Pittsboro.

On Nov. 10 and 11, Pittsboro reported low levels of 1,4-Dioxane in raw and treated water, but on Nov. 12, a spike occurred, which could coincide with the contamination making its way down the Haw from Glance.

Town staff continues to pull samples for expedited results. The next round is expected within 24 hours.

 

On the verge of extinction, red wolves get a reprieve; US Fish & Wildlife reinstate protections, upending Trump-era proposal

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has withdrawn a proposed rule that would have allowed people to intentionally kill red wolves in most of northeastern North Carolina, and would have likely led to the extinction of the species in the wild.

The federal action essentially resets the agency’s policy on red wolf management. Red wolves will be protected in five counties — Beaufort, Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, and Washington. People can intentionally kill the wolves only to protect themselves, pets and livestock if they are in immediate danger.

“Based on recent court decision … and having considered public comments submitted in response to the 2018 proposed rule, the Service determined that withdrawing the proposed rule is the best course of action at this time,” a USFWS press release said.

Under a 2018 proposal during the Trump administration, USFWS proposed shrinking the wolves’ protected area in North Carolina by 90%, limiting it to certain public lands in Hyde and Dare counties. Had that proposal become final, people could have killed the wolves in previously protected areas, which extended throughout Tyrrell, Washington and Beaufort counties.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute, filed a federal complaint, alleging USFWS intentionally failed to protect the critically threatened species as required by federal law. “The science says it will be the end of the red wolf in the wild,” within six to eight years, SELC senior attorney Sierra Weaver said in court at the time.

When the proposed rule went out for public comment, 107,988 of 108,124 comments submitted to the Service advocated for strong federal protections for the red wolves. The red wolf is listed as an endangered species, except in a portion of North Carolina where it was reintroduced as a “nonessential experimental population.” North Carolina, which is part of the species’ historical range, has the only known wild population of red wolves.

Withdrawal of the 2018 proposed rule means USFWS will also reintroduce more wolves into the wild, as it did earlier this year. The agency said it will work with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to implement a coyote sterilization program on federal  and non-federal lands, subject to written landowner agreements. The sterilization of coyotes is important because they can breed with wolves and dilute the latter’s genetic purity.

The Southern Environmental Law Center sued USFWS in 2016 over the agency’s failure to manage the species in a way that would prevent its extinction. In 2018, a federal judge issued an injunction on USFWS, ordering the agency to prohibit the capturing and killing of “non-problem wolves” — those posing no immediate danger. In January 2021, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle required the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare a plan to release captive red wolves

While red wolf advocates applauded the USFWS decision, they said they remain concerned that the agency won’t actively try to keep the species viable.

“We’re pleased that the Fish and Wildlife Service is finally withdrawing its harmful proposal to remove protections for wild red wolves and drastically reduce their protected area, but the question remains: will the agency commit to proven conservation measures to save the world’s rarest wild wolves, including reintroductions?” Weaver said in a prepared statement. “Effective on the ground actions are urgently needed to save wild red wolves now, not just nixing bad proposals.”

“The plan to slash the red wolf’s recovery area was reckless and poorly conceived. I’m relieved the Fish and Wildlife Service finally listened to the public’s outcry against it,” said Perrin de Jong, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a prepared statement. “People want federal agencies to do more, not less, to protect the world’s most endangered wolf.”

At one time, the red wolf program marked a significant achievement for USFWS.  The agency released the first breeding pairs of red wolves into the wilds of northeastern North Carolina in 1987. By 1992, the agency had declared the experiment a success.

Through the first part of the ’00s, USFWS introduced more wolves into the habitat. It had a program to sterilize coyotes, which had encroached on wolf territory. Coyotes can breed with wolves and dilute the latter’s genetic purity. USFWS also prohibited people from shooting “non-problem” wolves.

As a result, the number of wolves jumped to more than 100, raising the hopes of conservation biologists and wildlife advocates that the species could be saved in the wild.

The red wolf population has plummeted since these policy changes, which may have emboldened some landowners to shoot wolves without a “take permit.” In late 2016, a red wolf was found shot to death on federal land, the fourth such animal to die that year, according to the most recent USFWS figures. The cause of death was not listed.

From 1987 to 2000, 15 red wolves died from gunshot wounds, an average of 1.2 per year. But from 2000 to 2013, the total spiked to 73, an average of 5 per year — a 300 percent increase.

Pittsboro officials: “the Town was simply lucky this time” regarding 1,4-Dioxane from Greensboro

The Haw River, as viewed from the Bynum bridge (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

The slug of toxic 1,4-Dioxane coursing down the Haw River from Greensboro arrived in Pittsboro at just the right time.

Pittsboro Town Manager Chris Kennedy announced in a press release today that based on low levels of compound in drinking water, the contamination passed the town’s water intake from the Haw River during “dormant raw water draw hours,” when demand is low, as common in fall and winter.

Levels of 1,4-Dioxane in both treated and untreated water in Pittsboro ranged from less than 1 part per billion to 2.09 ppb. The EPA has set a health advisory goal of 35 ppb in drinking water, which represents a 1-in-10,000 excess lifetime cancer risk.

That is not as protective as the 1-in-1 million cancer risk that the EPA uses for chemicals that have no safe dose. However, research is incomplete on 1,4-Dioxane, and the EPA has yet to set legally enforceable standards for the compound.

1,4-Dioxane is a toxic chemical used in degreasers that the EPA has classified as a likely carcinogen.

Routine sampling showed Greensboro’s TZ Osborne wastewater treatment plant discharged the contamination on Wednesday, Nov. 3, but the city did not receive the lab results until Monday, Nov. 8, at 11:20 a.m.

Kennedy said that Greensboro notified them about three hours later. The amount of 1,4-Dioxane in the original discharge was 767 parts per billion; that’s more than 2,100 times the EPA’s and the state’s health advisory goal for surface water. That level is more stringent — just 0.35 ppb — than in drinking water.

If Pittsboro’s raw water intake had pulled the contamination into the drinking water system, which has happened before, the contamination would have “persisted in our system for weeks,” Kennedy said. “While this news is a relief, it does not discount the fact that an excessive release could have contaminated our drinking water supply. Frankly, the town was simply lucky this time.”

Kennedy said the town will continue to sample both treated and untreated water “until it is abundantly clear that the 1,4-Dioxane has cleared the raw water intake.”

Greensboro has yet to publicly announce the source of the contamination.

The wastewater treatment plant in Greensboro receives discharges from both residential and industrial customers in Guilford County. From there, the plant treats the discharge before sending it into South Buffalo Creek, which feeds the Haw. However, conventional treatment systems don’t remove 1,4-Dioxane.

The discharge violates the terms of a  Special Order by Consent between DEQ and the City of Greensboro, which set a maximum daily level of 45 parts per billion of 1,4-Dioxane in wastewater. The Haw River Assembly, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, has challenged the terms of the order, saying they are not protective enough.

The recent incident was just one of several illegal discharges from the Greensboro plant. In July 2021, sampling results showed that levels from in wastewater ranged from 543 parts per billion to 687 parts per billion. Greensboro officials said they had not identified the source.

In August 2019, Greensboro’s discharge contained levels of 1,4-Dioxane ranging from 705 ppb to 1,210 ppb. The source of the contamination was Shamrock Environmental, an industrial customer that discharges its wastewater to the Osborne plant. That incident prompted DEQ to enter a Special Order by Consent with the city.

While DEQ regulates discharge from cities and towns, the municipalities are responsible for regulating their dischargers and ensuring wastewater is compliant with state and federal law.

According to Greensboro documents obtained under public records law, roughly two dozen companies discharge their wastewater into the city system. Since 2018, the city has issued 18 violations related to contaminants in the discharge, none of them related to 1,4-Dioxane.

Shamrock Environmental has been cited three times and fined $2,500 for exceedances of a compound called p-cresol, which is used in the manufacture of household products. Shamrock is not a manufacturer, but is a hauler and disposal service for that sector. Vertellus, a specialty chemical company received violations for exceedances of chloroform, toluene and since.

Greensboro releases yet another slug of 1,4-Dioxane into Haw River, Pittsboro’s drinking water supply

Update Nov. 10, 9:30 a.m.: Cory Saulsbury, superintendent of Pittsboro’s water plant told Policy Watch that sampling from from Nov. 3 to Nov. 8 showed levels of 1, 4-Dioxane at 1.07 ppb. Saulsbury said the town will “continue to monitor the situation by pulling samples every day this week with a rush order.” 

Greensboro’s wastewater treatment plant illegally discharged high levels of the likely carcinogen 1,4-Dioxane into the Haw River, the drinking water supply for the Town of Pittsboro and other downstream communities along the Cape Fear River.

Adam Pickett, Pittsboro’s public utilities director, confirmed to Policy Watch that there had been a discharge. Emails obtained by Policy Watch show that the discharge occurred on Nov. 3, and Greensboro notified downstream communities, including Pittsboro, on Nov. 8. The amount of 1,4-Dioxane in the original discharge was 767 parts per billion; that’s more than 2,100 times the EPA’s and the state’s health advisory goal for surface water.

The discharge violates the terms of a  Special Order by Consent between DEQ and the City of Greensboro, which set a maximum daily level of 45 parts per billion of 1,4-Dioxane in wastewater. The Haw River Assembly, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, has challenged the terms of the order, saying they are not protective enough. Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton told Policy Watch that Greensboro had not contacted the group directly about the latest discharge, “even as negotiations are underway regarding the Special Order by Consent triggered by major 1,4- dioxane releases” that occurred in 2019 and 2021.

1,4-Dioxane is a toxic chemical used in degreasers that the EPA has classified as a likely carcinogen. There is no regulatory standard for 1,4-Dioxane, but the EPA has set a health advisory goal of 35 parts per billion for drinking water, which equals a 1-in-10,000 lifetime excess cancer risk. The surface water goal is more stringent, at 0.35 ppb, a 1-in-1 million lifetime excess cancer risk.

Emails show that Pittsboro’s latest sampling through Nov. 2 showed levels of 4 parts per billion. It’s still unknown how much 1,4-Dioxane entered the town’s drinking water, but results should be available this afternoon.

Elijah Williams, water reclamation manager for the City of Greensboro, told Policy Watch that utilities staff has notified the NC Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) and downstream utilities and is actively investigating possible sources of the substance.

This is just one of several illegal discharges from the Greensboro plant. The most recent one occurred in July 2021; sampling results showed that levels from in wastewater ranged from 543 parts per billion to 687 parts per billion. Greensboro officials said they had not identified the source.

In August 2019, Greensboro’s discharge contained levels of 1,4-Dioxane ranging from 705 ppb to 1,210 ppb. The source of the contamination was Shamrock Environmental, an industrial customer that discharges its wastewater to the Osborne plant.

The TZ Osborne Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greensboro receives discharges from both residential and industrial customers in Guilford County. From there, the plant treats the discharge before sending it into South Buffalo Creek, which feeds the Haw. However, conventional treatment systems don’t remove 1,4-Dioxane.