Children are at particular risk for chemical exposure through drinking water. Not only are their bodies smaller and the chemical burden on them greater, but they also drink more water. Wilmington pediatrician Dr. David Hill told the crowd, “If you can find a safer source of drinking water, do so.” (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

J ust steps outside the door of the Coastline Conference Center in Wilmington, the Cape Fear River moseys on its last 35 miles of its journey to the Atlantic Ocean. But the 300-plus people inside the conference center no longer trust the Cape Fear as their source of clean drinking water.

GenX, an unregulated contaminant, has been detected in both the river and drinking water. The chemical can’t be removed using traditional water treatment methods.

Cape Fear River Watch hosted a GenX Community Forum on Wednesday night, where, former Wilmington Mayor Harper Peterson said, “we can express our fear, concern, worries and outrage.”

These emotions have troubled many Wilmington residents since June 7, when the Star-News reported the findings of a team of scientists including NC State University professor Detlef Knappe. That study, published in 2016, showed GenX had been detected in drinking water, with its upstream source being Chemours. A spinoff of DuPont, Chemours discharges GenX into the Cape Fear via the factory’s effluent.

Gen X in the family of PFOA chemicals (perfluoroctanoic acids), a byproduct of manufacturing Teflon. PFOAs are widespread in the environment; they’re even present in house dust. Despite their ubiquitousness, GenX is classified as an “emerging contaminant” by the EPA. Emerging contaminants have not been independently tested for safety or toxicity; nor are they regulated. Its effects on human health are unknown. GenX is biopersistent, meaning it remains in the body, in this case, for an estimated one to three years.

“We don’t know’ is a tremendously unacceptable answer,” said forum panelist John Green, a local attorney.

Chemours has not sampled its discharge and instead used modeling to estimate levels of GenX. Based on 2013-14 data provided by Chemours, the state Department of Health and Human Services has determined that levels of 70,000 parts per trillion in drinking water presents a “low risk.” Although a safe level has not been established, the international threshold is 90 ppt; the EPA has set a “health advisory” for combined levels of PFOAs above 70 ppt.

UNC Wilmington professor Larry Cahoon, a forum panelist, is a biological oceanographer who specializes in water quality analysis and remediation. He emphasized that Knappe’s study indicated GenX is only one of several PFOAs in the Cape Fear. “It’s a cocktail,” he said.

More than 300 people attended a community forum Wednesday about the contaminant GenX, which has been detected in Wilmington’s drinking water. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

PFOAs are endocrine disruptors, which affect hormone levels and can play general havoc in the body. (BPA, found in plastic bottles is another common example of an endocrine disruptor.) These chemicals can more significantly impact children and teens, who are growing and developing. They also drink more water — babies in their formula, for example.

“When you start talking about endocrine disruptors and children, it makes me nervous,” said Dr. David Hill, a Wilmington pediatrician who was on the panel.  “If you can find a safer source of drinking water, do it.”

Susanne Brander, an ecotoxicologist at UNC Wilmington, said bathing is likely safe because GenX does not penetrate the skin. However, she added that she’s “on the fence” about washing food in tap water.”

In early June, Chemours told state and coastal officials at a closed-door meeting (one pool reporter was allowed to attend) that it couldn’t eliminate the chemical from its discharge.

But earlier this week, just a day after DEQ began sampling water from the Cape Fear — and after the EPA launched an investigation — the company  announced it would stop discharging GenX into the river.

The company’s state wastewater discharge permit, which has expired, doesn’t require it to disclose the presence of GenX. “It may be legal,” said Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper. “But it’s not ethical. they chose not to tell the communities downstream. Clean water is our right.”

Since there’s a lack of funding for university and government research on emerging contaminants, chemical companies pay for in-house testing, which is often tailored to a desired outcome. The EPA, Brander said, “doesn’t have a lot of strength right now to do the research.”

Attorney John Green said funding shortages at both the EPA and DEQ prevent those agencies from being legally tough on DuPont and Chemours. The EPA is facing a 30 percent overall cut in its budget — the lowest appropriation in 40 years. DEQ’s proposed budget, released this week by a House and Senate conference committee, also cuts key jobs and requires the department secretary to find an additional $1.9 million in savings.

“Because of budget cuts, we don’t have great faith in the regulatory community to joust with DuPont,” Green said. “Change will likely come through legal action.”

Lawsuits have proven effective against DuPont. GenX, also known as C6, is similar to the chemical C8. Also manufactured by DuPont, C8 was phased out after several class-action lawsuits showed a link between it and cancer and other health problems. Last year, DuPont and Chemours settled with the plaintiffs for $671 million because the companies discharged C8 into the Ohio River, sickening some residents with cancer and other health problems. DuPont subsequently paid a $16.5 million fine to the EPA for failing to disclose that C8 could harm human health.

Burdette said his group would push for a binding agreement between Chemours and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority to permanently stop discharging GenX into the river. He also plans to ask DEQ to add restrictions on Chemours’s permit, which up for review, and to study river sediment as well as water. The EPA, Burdette said, should investigate past discharges

“If the river is in bad shape, we are in bad shape,” Burdette said. “If the river suffers, we suffer.”

The Cape Fear, less lovely now that it’s known the water is contaminated with GenX (Photo: Lisa Sorg)