A debate over “forever chemicals” flows through a North… | WORLD
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The shape of water

SCIENCE | Do “forever chemicals” in drinking water pose a perpetual threat?

Illustration by Lucy Rose

The shape of water
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The Cape Fear River stretches 191 miles across eastern North Carolina before flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. The Tar Heel State’s most industrialized river, it touches the Research Triangle and the Piedmont Triad—some of the state’s most urban areas. It also provides drinking water to nearly 1 ­million people. But in the past few years, locals have wondered whether that water is safe to drink.

That’s because in 2017 the Wilmington StarNews revealed that a DuPont (now Chemours) facility in Fayetteville, N.C., ­discharged so-called PFAS “forever chemicals” into the river for four decades.

PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, include thousands of synthetic chemicals used in consumer products ­dating back to the 1940s. The two most prevalent and most studied PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, were voluntarily phased out by chemical manufacturers between 2000 and 2015 due to concerns over their potential harm to humans. But because PFAS do not degrade easily, these two chemicals are still found at low levels in the environment and drinking water.

A recent United States Geological Survey (USGS) study made headlines when it claimed nearly half of U.S. tap water is contaminated with PFAS.

“There’s been almost no place scientists have looked where they have not found PFAS,” toxicologist Jamie DeWitt told CNN.

EPA researchers sort samples for experimentation as part of drinking water and PFAS research.

EPA researchers sort samples for experimentation as part of drinking water and PFAS research. Joshua A. Bickel/AP

The debate surrounding PFAS chemicals is messy and complicated. Chemical interest groups and the current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administration seek to limit or abolish the chemicals, claiming they cause great harm to human health. But some experts say the need for proposed PFAS regulation is overstated.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, scientists don’t fully understand how PFAS chemicals affect human health. Studies examining potential relationships between PFAS and adverse health outcomes don’t involve the same groups of people, the same type of exposure, or the same PFAS.

A 2021 review of PFAS toxicity studies concluded that strong data suggests PFAS exposure can suppress the human immune response, alter thyroid hormones, and decrease male and female fertility. The review also said studies show a possible association between PFAS exposure and kidney disease. But associations with liver disease, diabetes, and lowered infant birth weight are inconsistent. The study authors noted that most toxicity studies focus primarily on the effects of PFOA and PFOS.

Susan Goldhaber, an environmental toxicologist who writes for the American Council on Science and Health, said the USGS misrepresented the study’s findings in its own press release. She explained that the study used a model to extrapolate a small amount of data to make the claim that up to 45 percent of U.S. tap water is contaminated. She said the sample size, 716 locations, is not sufficient to draw conclusions about the entire country. In comparison, the EPA took 37,000 samples in its latest national study of drinking water contamination.

Goldhaber, who worked for the EPA for 10 years, leans pro-regulation. But she thinks the EPA’s latest proposed drinking water rules, which would require six specific PFAS chemicals not exceed between 1 and 4 parts per trillion (ppt), are excessive.

Beyond new risks, we have existing risks that we’d like to be able to manage better.

“[Those concentrations] would be concerning if this was a super toxic chemical, but it’s just not,” she said.

Back in Wilmington, N.C., Dana Sargent serves as executive director of Cape Fear River Watch, a nonprofit fighting to reduce PFAS chemicals in the Cape Fear River Basin. She described feeling clueless about PFAS when the StarNews story first broke in 2017. Piecing together information from reports of earlier PFAS contamination in Parkersburg, W. Va., and the Ohio River Valley, Sargent’s organization sued both Chemours and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. That culminated in a 2019 Consent Order requiring Chemours to reduce the release of PFAS chemicals into the surrounding environment. Today, the river’s contamination ­levels are down to about 100 ppt. But that’s still above the EPA’s proposed 1-4 ppt levels.

Getting to those levels will be expensive for water utility companies. According to the American Water Works Association, the EPA estimates the proposed regulations will affect 4,500 systems at a maximum cost of $1.2 billion. But the association estimates closer to 8,000 systems will have to comply, at a cost of $3.2 billion.

Chris Moody, the association’s ­regulatory technical manager, said water utility companies are already stretched thin. Many U.S. municipalities have aging drinking water infrastructures, with pipes up to 100 years old in some communities, Moody added: “Beyond new risks, we have existing risks that we’d like to be able to manage better.”

Moody cautions PFAS regulation costs will ultimately trickle down to customers, in the form of rising utility costs. Meanwhile, the EPA has yet to hold chemical companies responsible, he said. “That’s probably the No. 1 complaint we get from members, is that continued push of ‘why is it that we’re targeting drinking water, but we have not yet targeted the ­polluter?’”

Heather Frank

Heather is a science correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, the University of Maryland, and Carnegie Mellon University. She has worked in both food and chemical product development, and currently works as a research chemist. Heather resides with her family in Pittsburgh, Pa.


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