Chatham County

NC to test water sources for industrial chemicals

Two fishermen chat with each other near the Seaforth boat launch on Jordan Lake Friday Nov.15, 2013.
Two fishermen chat with each other near the Seaforth boat launch on Jordan Lake Friday Nov.15, 2013.

North Carolina environmental regulators will start testing the state’s major supplies of drinking water to learn whether people are ingesting industrial chemicals whose health effects are poorly understood, a state official said Friday.

Monitoring could start next month for nearly two dozen unregulated chemicals that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies as “emerging contaminants” needing more study, state Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Jamie Kritzer said.

The testing is an outgrowth of concerns that a Chemours Co. chemical called GenX used to make Teflon and other coatings was in Wilmington’s chief water supply.

The broader testing, to include Norman, Falls and Jordan lakes, and the Yadkin and Catawba rivers, will focus on so-called perfluorinated chemicals similar to GenX, Kritzer said. Such compounds have been found in industrial countries such as the U.S., Germany and China. The compounds are suspected of posing an increased cancer risk in humans.

“Most of these substances do not have health information associated with them, so we don’t know a lot about them in terms of what their health risks are,” Kritzer said.

Toxicologists and other specialists on a state science advisory board will use information developed from adding the lesser-known chemicals to existing testing for known harmful pollutants as they work to set standards for when health is at risk, he said.

GenX replaced a similar fluorine-based compound after neighbors of chemical-maker DuPont’s Parkersburg, West Virginia, plant claimed in more than 3,500 lawsuits that the compound made them sick. DuPont spun off Chemours into a separate company two years ago. A jury in July 2016 found the two companies liable for a man’s testicular cancer that he said was linked to a chemical released by the West Virginia plant. The two companies this year agreed to pay nearly $671 million to settle further lawsuits.

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Jordan Lake chemicals

The additional testing comes after Duke University researchers said they’ve found relatives of the chemical GenX in Jordan Lake, two of its feeder streams and in Cary’s tap water.

The discovery, from Nicholas School of the Environment professors Heather Stapleton and Lee Ferguson, surfaced Thursday in a report by the liberal N.C. Policy Watch.

Stapleton in an interview supplied a map showing feeder-stream samples from Northeast Creek in south Durham and Morgan Creek downstream of Chapel Hill. Those samples, and a third drawn near Cary’s Jordan Lake water intake, returned detectable levels of nine perfluorinated chemicals that have been in use longer than GenX, Stapleton said, adding that she alerted Cary water-system officials and shared the data with them.

Cary officials responded by ordering tests of their own, which found small amounts of at least a few of the chemicals in their system’s water intake, treatment filters and tap water. But town spokeswoman Susan Moran said the findings suggest the two key contaminants aren’t present at levels that worry the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“We continue to meet or exceed all standards, and our water is safe,” she said, adding that Cary officials are “coordinating” with state regulators and the Duke scientists.

Stapleton indicated the discovery was coincidence, growing out of her efforts to help a group in Duke’s medical system unravel the mystery of why people in a community in Robeson County, in the southeast part of the state, suffer an unusual number of chronic kidney problems.

She decided to check its water and look for GenX, among other chemicals. Stapleton used tap water from her house in Cary as a “control sample” and got a surprise.

“It turns out I found nothing in Robeson County and these chemicals in my own drinking water, at levels that seemed high to me,” she said, adding that the testing did not find GenX.

The next step was to have another lab re-run the tests, to verify them. That done, at the end of October a colleague pulled the samples from Jordan Lake and its feeder streams.

“That third analysis showed us the levels in the finished water were very similar to what’s in Lake Jordan,” Stapleton said. “We know these chemicals are not removed efficiently in drinking-water treatment.”

The map of the sampling sites showed that the Morgan Creek sample came from where the stream flows under Farrington Mill Road. The Northeast Creek sample came from a point near the stream’s passage under Grandale Drive.

Sewage treatment plants

Stapleton thinks it’s unlikely the chemicals are “industrial effluent.” She suspects they come from a sewage treatment plant, and both creeks receive treated waste from such facilities.

The Morgan Creek sampling point is about 2 1/2 miles below the Orange Water and Sewer Authority’s sewage plant, and the Northeast Creek one is close to where Durham County’s Triangle Wastewater Treatment Plant discharges effluent. The Durham County plant receives sewage from a portion of south Durham but primarily serves Research Triangle Park.

Durham County Manager Wendell Davis said water officials would examine the testing.

Stapleton said the chemicals involved that have attracted the most regulatory and scientific interest are called perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid, more commonly referred to as PFOS and PFOA, respectively. They’ve been used, like GenX, in nonstick coatings and have figured in stain-prevention treatments.

An acting deputy director in the Durham County’s engineering department, Stephanie Brixley, said county officials “are unaware of any users” that are discharging either chemical to the Triangle plant. “We do not have any sampling data for these pollutants on the effluent,” she added.

PFOS and PFOA are the subject of a nonbinding health advisory from the EPA that urges water departments to notify state regulators and residents if they’re found in concentrations above 70 parts per trillion – an amount Cary officials reckon is equivalent to about 70 drops of water in 10 million gallons.

Another EPA document noted that the two man-made chemicals have been found in surface water, sediments and sewage effluent elsewhere in the U.S., and can show up in unexpected places, such as the Arctic. They’re “extremely persistent” once they’ve been released, the document said.

Stapleton noted that the EPA guideline isn’t as tough as those some states have issued. New Jersey regulators, worried about the chemicals’ effects on human development and links to other health problems, watch for concentrations of PFOA as small as 14 parts per trillion. Vermont looks out for PFOS concentrations larger than 20 parts per trillion.

Ray Gronberg of The Herald-Sun contributed to this report.