NCSU scientist: GenX not only toxic chemical in Cape Fear River
Raleigh, N.C. GenX, which has sparked concern and outrage among Wilmington-area residents since word surfaced last month that elevated levels of the chemical were found in the Cape Fear River, may be the least of people’s worries, a North Carolina State University scientist said Friday.
“GenX is only a small fraction of the total level of fluorochemicals that we have found in the river, and the other levels are some times 50 to 100 times higher,” said Detlef Knappe, a professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at N.C. State and one of the state’s top researchers for Gen X and other contaminants in drinking water.
DuPont and its spinoff company, Chemours, have been dumping GenX into the Cape Fear River from a plant in Bladen County since 1980, officials said. Chemours recently stopped the practice at the request of Gov. Roy Cooper, and Cooper said Monday his environmental regulators would block a permit for the company to resume its GenX discharges.
State regulators call GenX an “emerging contaminant” not because it’s new, but because it hasn’t so far been regulated. A type of fluorochemical, it’s used to make Teflon, Gore-Tex, microwave popcorn bags and fast food wrappers because it repels oil and water, which also makes it extremely difficult for water treatment plants to remove it.
GenX was a manufacturing byproduct of a different chemical manufacturing process until 2009, when DuPont told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency it would make the compound commercially at the Bladen County plant. It was to be a replacement for PFOA, a related perfluorinated compound used for the same purposes until it was linked to cancer.
Knappe said byproduct chemicals are rarely regulated, and they sometimes don’t even have to be reported.
Because EPA regulators and DuPont kept the structure of GenX hidden from the public as a trade secret, researchers had to spend a year using the latest advances in mass spectroscopy analytics just to identify it in the water, Knappe said.
“If something is not regulated, then there are no routine monitoring requirements for those chemicals,” he said. “First, somebody has to dig and see what’s there.”
Even though GenX is unregulated, Cooper has asked the State Bureau of Investigation to determine whether the DuPont and Chemours violated any permits by discharging it into the river.
He also has asked the EPA to set safety levels for the compound, and for the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct more studies on the health effects of long-term exposure to GenX. Cooper also wants companies to disclose more information about pollutants they release, and he has asked state lawmakers for additional funds for testing and research by the state’s Dept. of Environmental Quality, an agency whose budget has been steeply cut since the recession in 2009.
The Cape Fear River is full of unregulated chemical byproducts, Knappe said, noting his main research has been into 1,4 dioxane, which is produced during the manufacture of plastics and polyester. The EPA has labeled the compound a likely human carcinogen linked to kidney and testicular cancer.
1,4 dioxane is a component of commercial solvents like trichloroethylene. In the past, it’s been most commonly found contaminating groundwater when it leaks from underground storage tanks. But Knappe says it’s also currently being discharged into the Cape Fear watershed by manufacturing operations in the Triad..
State regulators weren’t even checking for 1,4 dioxane in drinking water until Knappe’s research showed levels 100 times higher than what the EPA considers safe. DEQ is now monitoring the river for it, he said.
“I think we also just have to ask harder questions when we issue permits for industrial discharges,” he said. “If we know we’re making byproducts and we don’t know what they are, then it’s pretty irresponsible to just discharge them into a river that’s a drinking water supply.”
DEQ was asked Tuesday for an interview on the issue of emerging contaminants, but as of Friday, the agency did not choose to make anyone available to talk about its plans for finding and testing for them.
“I think the politics of it are challenging,” Knappe said. “DEQ has been a target. Their budget has been reduced. And not everybody likes the idea that a regulation gets put in place. But in this case, I think the outrage in Wilmington has been indicative of – that people are unhappy with this kind of pollution of their drinking water. So clearly I think something needs to be done to stop this.”
“I think as a society we have to really question, or appreciate perhaps, the value that an EPA or a DEQ can provide if they properly function,” he added.