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DON’T FORGET DUPONT: Other chemicals besides GenX threaten our waterways

The GenX story continues in the Cape Fear…

Last Wednesday, the StarNews, WHQR, and WWAY hosted a GenX panel at Kenan Auditorium on UNCW’s campus. Much was said in two hours—a lot of info we heard before, even.

The panel was made up of a slew of locals and officials. Mike Brown, the chairman of the CFPUA board, was the only CFPUA rep to attend. He defended the actions the board had taken, as the crowd hissed at him. Brown was an easy target to vent some of the crowd’s outrage, although perhaps only because no one from Chemours was present (yet again).

Mayor Saffo was looking ahead to the November elections, while reminding the audience of his early decisiveness. Woody White declared he is still drinking the tap water, while scientists clearly stated they were not. Nearly everyone at the table had a bottled water.

Dr. Joseph Wilde-Ramsing, with the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, based in Amsterdam, suggested locals potentially use international law to hold the company responsible for their pollution. Apparently, environmental authorities have more funding overseas.

Megan Hunter, an environmental attorney from Ohio, spoke about how the public has protections in place for water through the Federal Clean Water Act. “It’s a hard truth that the scales are often weighted against individuals,” she cautioned. But she noted it’s important to remember the laws in place that protect our environment and our health.

Perhaps the most salient takeaway came from the reiteration that our waterways are being contaminated by more than GenX. GenX only makes up one half of one percent of the total load of chemicals in our drinking water. Yes, one half of one percent of the total load of perflourinated compounds found in the Cape Fear River, according to NC State professor Dr. Detlef Knappe. Knappe led the research team that discovered chemicals in our drinking water in the first place. He has reported GenX is a small part of a larger problem.

What does that mean, exactly? Chemours stopped discharging GenX into the waterways. That’s good, right? Well, yes. Also, it’s a good distraction against higher concentrations of other chemicals—three of them, in fact—being dumped. They’re all PFECAs, and include PFMOAA, PFO2HxA, and PFO3OA. They measured, according to Dr. Knappe’s official report, “2-113 times greater than that of PFPrOPrA [or GenX].”

GenX was found in the water entering the Sweeny Water Treatment Plant at an average concentration of 631 nanograms per liter—or parts per trillion. Taking Dr. Knappe’s “one-half of one percent” figure, the math comes out to 126,200 parts per trillion, or 126 parts per billion. That’s 126 drops of GenX and other perfluoronated chemicals for every Olympic-sized swimming pool of water that goes into the plant. For the water leaving the treatment plant, the stuff coming out of our taps, the original paper published by Dr. Knappe informs:

“At this drinking water treatment plant, PFECA removal by coagulation, ozonation, biofiltration, and disinfection was negligible.”

6A bar graph in his research shows Peak Area Counts for GenX and newly discovered perfluoroalkyl ether carboxylic acids (PFECAs) in the finished water—the same stuff that’s coursing through our taps. The count for GenX was a thin red line on the  left-hand edge of the bar graph. PFMOAA’s peak area was about 170,000. PFO2HxA’s peak area was 210,000, and PFO3OA had a peak area of about 220,000, looming darkly to the far right side of the graph.

According to Dr. Knappe, the industry generates new chemicals quickly, and makes formulas proprietary (private and exclusive), which forces analytical chemists to become detectives to figure out what’s what. Dr. Knappe reminded of the potential human impacts of GenX—how only very basic animal testing has been done, and no other meaningful health data exists. More so, the EPA hasn’t regulated a new manmade chemical for over 20 years—“the appetite to [do that] is next to zero,” he says. 

The bottom line: We know nothing about the three other chemicals, even less than the minutia we know about GenX. They’re a “black box,” according to Dr. Knappe—the only thing published on them is their CAS number—like a social-security number that identifies individual chemicals. Dr. Larry Cahoon—who joined the panel and has been one of the most outspoken members within the local scientific community—did some digging and found absolutely nothing on them either. What he did find is that GenX is “corrosive.”

“If you pour some on your hand, it’ll burn a hole through it,” he told encore.

The other chemicals don’t have sexy, memorable names like GenX. Maybe that’s part of the reason nobody but the scientists are talking about them. Who, besides people who studied organic chemistry, can remember something with an official name like “Perfluoro-2-methoxyacetic acid”? Most of us can barely pronounce it, let alone remember it.

So, maybe we should rename the chemicals. How about we call PFMOAA “ChemWAR: What is it good for?” and PFO2HxA can be “ErodedEPA.” And we can refer to the granddaddy of all the baddies, PFO3OA, as “DuPont’s Terrible Enfant.”

DuPont still shares one-third of the discharge pipe in Fayetteville, and according to a schematic Dr. Cahoon showed encore, they still manufacture perflourinated polyvinyl fluoride resins in two places at the Fayetteville Works site. Until 2015 Chemours was merely a small piece of DuPont’s corporate puzzle. They couldn’t even pollute properly without Daddy DuPont holding their hands. DuPont has been silent about what they are doing to stop the emissions of the chemicals into the river—which many interpret as nothing. If Chemours are contractors of the horrible house that has been built on the banks of our river, DuPont is the architect.

By focusing the spotlight on GenX and Chemours, DuPont and the other toxic chemicals—with their new fun names—get a free pass to continue working in the darkness. They are a big part of this story, too. I would say the biggest.

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