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EXACTLY WHAT IS IN OUR WATER: The results are in and the outcome still not favorable

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Last week I received a long-awaited letter in the mail. The address in the top left corner read “NC State University: GenX Exposure Study.” Last November my home and 197 other New Hanover County households welcomed a technician into our kitchens to take a sample of our tap water to test for fluorochemicals. For the past five months, we’ve waited patiently for the lab to uncover exactly what is coming out of our taps. Now, at long last, we have our results.

GenX Water Test

TEST RESULTS: Like other NHC residents participating in the NC State GenX study, his tap water test results came last week. Photo by John Wolfe

Seventeen fluorochemicals, including GenX, were tested for, and used U.S. EPA standard procedures. GenX was found in most tap-water samples collected from homes serviced by the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant, which sources its water from the Cape Fear River. However, no samples were above the current public health goal of 140 parts per trillion (a number reached based on limited animal studies). Interestingly, the four tap-water samples from the Richardson Plant, which sources from groundwater, did not have detectable levels of GenX.

In addition to GenX, other fluorochemicals—Nafion byproduct 2, perfluoro-2-methoxyacetic acid (PFMOAA), and perfluoro(3,5-dioxahexanoic) acid (PFO2HxA)—were discovered in the water samples at a higher instrument response level than GenX. Due to the limitations of the equipment, the other three fluorochemicals were measured semi-quantitatively, meaning the exact concentrations couldn’t be calculated. But the researchers are confident the three chemicals were present. However,  there are currently no public health goals set for the three fluorochemicals.

On the last page of the letter were my own results. In recent months I have looked at my kitchen faucet with increased scrutiny and suspicion, so it was a relief to finally get some certainty about what was flowing out of it. I wasn’t surprised to learn the chemicals were there. We all knew it was happening—since last June, at least. I was pleased to discover my levels were consistently beneath the average levels found in the 198 households—why, I cannot guess. But they were still there, where they did not belong.

I’m not sure how to feel about the information, honestly. It doesn’t change anything. There are chemicals in our drinking water, placed there by the greed of a large corporation, which has done nothing to apologize for its actions, make amends or clean up the mess it made. It’s too late, anyhow. They’re out there, and they’re not going away any time soon. Only time will tell what it means for the wild places in our state—or for the health of people who live here. But we know who to blame, at least, and we now see exactly how big the problem is with a little more clarity.

When I got my letter on Tuesday, April 17, I went to UNCW, where a panel of researchers assembled to discuss the results in more detail. Dr. Jane Hoppin, the study’s principal investigator, spoke first how blood work and urine samples (which were taken at the same time as the tap water samples) were forthcoming, hopefully by the end of summer. Science moves slowly, she reminded us, and it is the first study to ever look at GenX in a human population.

Dr. Nadine Kotlarz spoke about tap-water samples and tools used to determine the results. It’s important to remember, before last June, there was a lot more GenX in the water. “The situation has improved significantly,” she reminded but added fluorochemicals (the three other emerging contaminants) were present at measurable levels.

Finally, Dr. Detlef Knappe spoke about additional home filtration options that were on the table (or under the sink, rather) for further removing chemicals from the water in our homes. As part of the survey, Dr. Knappe took samples from eight houses with under-the-sink reverse osmosis filters, 12 homes with activated block-carbon filters, and seven samples from whole-house filtration systems.

All of the RO systems worked well, he said. The systems could be purchased for anywhere between $200 to over $1,000, with added monitoring and maintenance costs. Most of the activated block-carbon filtration systems worked well, he added, but filters have to be changed with regularity (every 3 to 6 months). They can be purchased for around $100, with the additional maintenance costs of filters. Most whole-house filters did not work. Water softeners, he said, are just not designed to remove industrial contamination. Not to mention the systems are much more expensive, well over $1,000.

While that’s all well and good, the old argument remains: Why should we (citizens) have to be financially responsible for cleaning someone else’s mess out of our drinking water?

A brief question-and-answer session followed the presentations, moderated by Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette. Here’s what I learned: UNCW will study the amount of GenX in local fish; our concentration of GenX was higher than in the other two places afflicted with this problem (Parkersburg, West Virginia, and Dordrect, Netherlands); and the “vast load” of all emerging fluorochemicals in the water can pretty much be traced exclusively back to Chemours. While it’s good Chemours stopped dumping GenX into the river directly, Dr. Knappe noted, levels we’re still seeing are now from non-point sources—the groundwater and contaminated land near the factory.

They likely will keep leeching the chemicals into our water for a long time to come. When asked by Kemp, the panel all admitted, if they lived here, they would install RO filters in their own homes.

So where does this leave us? Holding, still, the short end of the stick, while Chemours continues to operate at a profit. Despite government intervention, despite public outcry, the only thing that can change the fact the toxic chemicals are loose in our world is a time machine. Remember the scene from the end of Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax,” when the Once-ler realizes his myriad sins only after it’s too late to atone for them? In a rare moment of self-recognition, he tells the boy to whom the story is told, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” I don’t see Chemours’ CEO Mark Vergnano having a similar change of heart—that book was a work of fiction, after all. Still, the sentiment rings true. Even if it’s too late for us, perhaps the awful lesson of what has happened here can be a warning for other places in similar jeopardy.

An old captain once told me, “It may very well be the sole purpose of your life is to serve as a warning to others.” A small silver lining, to be sure, but still it gleams. Let’s polish it until it’s bright enough for the whole world to see.

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