Posted in:

GenX Questions Continue: What About Food?

Models predict that air emissions from manufacturing units at Chemours were most likely to have drifted to the northeast and southwest of the property. Source: Department of Environmental Quality

From North Carolina Health News

People in the lower Cape Fear River basin are still living with lots of uncertainty over how much GenX and its sister chemicals two companies released into public and private drinking water supplies.

Now more questions are rising.

Dutch scientists this week briefed North Carolina scientists that GenX and a related older chemical, PFOA (or C8), has been detected in vegetables, grass and leaves near a Chemours plant in The Netherlands.

So might fruit, vegetables or livestock raised near Fayetteville Works, now operated by Chemours, pose hazards to people? What about fish harvested from nearby lakes or streams?

“We don’t know yet,” said North Carolina State University toxicologist and fish biologist W. Greg Cope, a member of the state Department of Environmental Quality’s Science Advisory Board and a leader in the North Carolina Cooperative Extension program. “And that’s the hard part when people ask questions. We’re ready to help when there is information to share.”

Data from Abroad

On Monday, the faces of four Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment scientists filled a video screen in the ground floor hearing room of the state-owned Archdale Building in downtown Raleigh.

The people on the U.S. end were researchers, members of a science advisory board created to help DEQ and the Department of Health and Human Services assess risks from emerging contaminants, at what levels they pose hazards and when regulation is needed.

The Dutch scientists explained that limited testing found evidence of GenX contamination in some plant life near a Dutch-based Chemours factory by the Port of Rotterdam.

“Carrots, beets, lettuce, several other varieties of crops were tested,” said one Dutch presenter. “About 60 percent came back without any detected PFOA or GenX. … (G)ardens very close to factory showed PFOA and GenX.”

Air emissions appear to be the source because municipal water serving people living near the Dutch facility is clear of contamination.

The data are spotty, the scientists made clear. Year-round sampling has not been tackled. Nor have tests of eggs or cow’s milk produced near the Dutch facility, which, unlike the North Carolina plant, does not produce GenX but uses it in manufacturing.

Fish obtained from lakes near the Dutch Chemours plant will be tested, with results expected later this year.

North Carolina officials will also test fish in this state for PFAS contamination, DHHS spokesman Jim Jones said Thursday. DEQ will collect fish from Marsh Wood Lake in Cumberland County later this month or in early March and send the tissue to a certified lab.

“(O)nce the samples have been reviewed and the data verified, the results will be made available to the public. This data will be used as guidance on recommendations relative to fish consumption,” according to a written statement from Jones.

There is evidence that GenX can contaminate food here. The state Department of Environmental Quality late last year confirmed private lab test results that detected substantial levels of GenX in honey produced by bees raised in Bladen County.

Testing detected one GenX level of 2,000 parts per trillion in the honey. That far exceeds the current state health goal of no more than 140 parts per trillion of GenX in drinking water, although as Michael Scott, director of the DEQ Division of Waste Management, pointed out, people don’t eat nearly as much honey as they drink water.

“We don’t have any reason to discount the results,” Scott said.

The honey had been produced for personal use and not commercially sold, but the beekeeper threw it away rather than use it, “out of precautionary principle,” Scott said.

The precautionary principle, embraced in many public health disciplines, recommends acting against a potential health threat, even when a full scientific understanding of a threat is not yet available.

Bladen County isn’t one of the largest agricultural counties in North Carolina. But residents there do farm. The county Farm Bureau’s figures place Bladen as third in hog and pig production, and ninth in turkeys raised.

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs said it is closely monitoring DEQ and DHHS efforts to assess risks from PFAS. But it lacks information that would prompt farmers near the plant to change their practices.

“We have been engaged with DEQ and DHHS on this, but in the absence of legal limits, we are continuing to look to them to advise us on their public health goals and potential impacts,” agriculture agency spokeswoman Andrea Ashby said.

Complex and Ever-Changing

GenX and several other perfluorinated compounds have been detected in the river and pubic drinking water intakes scores of miles from the Fayetteville plant and in more than 200 nearby drinking water wells at various concentrations.

Chemours is located below Fayetteville within the Cape Fear River basin. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Health risks from exposure to PFAS, per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances that are not regulated by Environmental Protection Agency are still under study. In general, exposing lab animals to high levels of the compounds produced changes in liver, thyroid and pancreas functioning. Changes in hormone levels have been detected, too.

As Science Advisory Board members absorb the data they are receiving in preparation for helping DHHS set exposure limits, there’s plenty of other GenX news to keep up with, including:

  • Chemours has been ordered to provide bottled water to at least 114 private well owners (out of 349 tested as of December) living near its chemical manufacturing compound. Samples in their drinking water turned up GenX above the provisional state health goal of 140 parts per trillion.
  • Bloomberg reported that Chemours has received a grand jury subpoena related to GenX discharges near Fayetteville into the Cape Fear River. This state’s DEQ disclosed last summer that it had also received a subpoena from the U.S. Attorney’s office of the Eastern District of North Carolina.
  • As first reported in the Wilmington StarNews, four Republican state senators are asking the EPA to audit DEQ’s administration of permitting and public water supply programs. They have also asked for guidance on whether a North Carolina agency can set standards for emerging chemicals that are not regulated by federal standards, which is the case with PFAS chemicals.
  • The EPA recently directed Chemours to test for GenX in public and private drinking water supplies near its Washington Works operation in West Virginia. DuPont’s failure a decade ago to disclose internal evidence that C8 pollution released from that plant posed health risks resulted in $10.25 million in EPA fines and a $670.7 million court settlement with nearby residents.

This story is provided courtesy of North Carolina Health News, an online news service covering health and environmental issues in North Carolina. Coastal Review Online is partnering with North Carolina Health News to provide readers with more stories of interest on the coast. 

About the Author

Catherine Clabby

Catherine Clabby is a science journalist who has worked her craft in newspaper, magazine, and digital publishing. Senior editor of E.O. Wilson’s "Life on Earth" biology book series, she reports on environmental health issues for "North Carolina Health News."