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REVISITING UNCERTAINTY: John Wolfe reveals the results from his GenX blood sample test

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The test results are in and it looks like Wilmingtonians have a lot more than GenX to think about…

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Look, I know it’s Thanksgiving, and the last thing folks want to read about after gorging on turkey, dressing, gravy, beans, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie is fluorochemicals contaminating the drinking water. Yes, the same water Grandma used to cook the feast. The water that someone’s little niece spilled all over the tablecloth at the kid’s table while reaching for her sippy cup. The water used to make coffee this morning—and put a splash of Bailey’s in because, come on, it’s Thanksgiving—while watching the Macy’s parade.

PANELIST REVEAL: NC State panelists discuss GenX results from blood samples of New Hanover County residents. Photo by John Wolfe

PANELIST REVEAL: NC State panelists discuss GenX results from blood samples of New Hanover County residents. Photo by John Wolfe

Sure, maybe reading some entertainment from Anghus’ film review or Gwenyfar’s holiday shopping ideas are better suited this holiday instead of discussions on GenX. But, the reality is, it’s not going away as long as it’s pumping through the Cape Fear River—and more importantly  our veins. I attended a results panel last Tuesday, led by Dr. Nadine Kotlarz, who delivered the NC State University study into three easily-digested bullet points.

You see, I received a letter in the mail last week containing exact counts of chemicals now coursing through my body (albeit a little slower, after all that butter on those biscuits). The study took samples of blood, urine, and tap water one year ago this month from 345 participants (56 of whom are children) from 198 households in our community. The results did not detect GenX in the blood of anyone who participated.

Yep. It’s true.

However, let me be clear: I didn’t say it wasn’t there; I just said it wasn’t detected. The study’s methods can only detect GenX in the blood in quantities over 2 parts per billion—every study has its limits. And it was definitely detected in the tap water, as an earlier article revealed.

Want to know what was detected? A whole bunch of other nasty stuff, whose names I write down here so you won’t even have to try to remember them: Our old friends PFOA and PFOS (which caused all that trouble in Ohio), an alphabet soup of chemicals in the same family as GenX with fun, easy-to-remember names like “PFO4DA” or “PFO5DoDA,” and something called “Hydro-Eve,” which sounds like a Bond villain.

Four of the chemicals (Nafion byproduct 2, PFO4DA, PFO5DoDA, and Hydro-Eve) are found uniquely in our area—downstream of Chemours’ Fayetteville Works plant. To put it in Black Friday terms: It’s an exclusive offer, not available in any other store. The legacy compounds, like PFOA and PFOS, hypothesized our old friend Dr. Detlef Knappe, are likely coming from further upstream—where they use firefighting foam containing the chemicals at the airport in Greensboro. Or they may come from municipal wastewater treatment plants if there’s industry in the area (which there certainly is in the Haw and Deep River regions, which combine to become the Cape Fear River). Or they can come from something called “landfill leachate” (great punk band name), which is the gnarly liquid from rain falling on garbage.

Wilmington residents also have the dubious accolade of boasting higher levels of historically used bad chemicals in their blood than in other parts of our great country. Using the publicly-available numbers from the Center for Disease Control, the NC State researchers compared our average blood levels of PFOA to the rest of America’s numbers from two studies—one taken in 1999 and one in 2016. The 2016 numbers showed how, across the country, PFOA levels have decreased over time—a good thing, indeed, dropping from 5.2 ppb on average in 1999 to just 1.5 ppb in 2016. 95 percent of Americans have a PFOA blood level at or below 4.1 ppb.

Not so in Wilmington. The average PFOA blood count for a Wilmingtonian who participated in the study was 4.4 ppb—closer to the national average 20 years ago than to the rest of the country at present.

When I got my own letter, I was glad I didn’t get the high score in any of the categories—although someone out there did—but I was perturbed to find my numbers were higher than median amounts across the board (Mom always told me I was above average). All totaled, there are 50 parts per billion of my blood that do not belong, 50 parts that began their life in a chemical factory upstream, and 50 parts that are now my problem because of some greedy swine at the Chemours corporation. At just 4.2 ppb of PFOA, one can run a higher risk of kidney disease, and at 2.5 ppb a higher risk of increased cholesterol. I am well north of both numbers, so I will absolutely be having a second and probably third piece of pie for dessert.

And I hate to break the news, but if it’s in me, it’s probably in you, dear readers, too. The study found four new chemicals (Nafion Byproduct 2, PFO4DA, PFO5DoDA, and Hydro-Eve, just as unknown as GenX was last June) in 99, 98, 87, and 76 percents, respectively, in all blood samples collected.

Back to square one, it seems—an old fear revisiting, one which comes from uncertainty.
Alas, Happy Turkey Day! Here’s hoping Christmas will be brighter.

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