Waccamaw-Siouan tribe, PFAS, Native American, STEM

PFAS could be labeled ‘hazardous.’ What does that mean for southeastern NC?

By Ivey Schofield


Chemicals that have polluted drinking water in parts of southeastern North Carolina for years could soon be designated as “hazardous” by the Environmental Protection Agency – a significant move that could lead to more regulation.

The EPA said last week its proposal applies to two types of widely used per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), commonly called “forever chemicals” that have been linked to adverse health effects in humans.  

Chemours, a spinoff of DuPont located at the border of Cumberland and Bladen counties, told state officials in 2017 that the company was responsible for polluting the Cape Fear River with GenX, a newer type of PFAS whose full effect on humans remains unknown. 

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About 1.5 million people get their drinking water from the Cape Fear River, which spans about 190 miles in south central and southeastern North Carolina, according to the Center for Environmental and Health Effects of PFAS at N.C. State University.

Why does it matter?

With a “hazardous” label, the EPA could require chemical companies to report toxic releases of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). The agency could also force companies to clean up contamination. 

The change would help residents better understand the extent of risks posed by PFAS and help protect public health, the EPA says. 

The classification is a legal one, incorporating the forever chemicals into the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, also known as the Superfund. 

The EPA will soon publish a notice of its proposed “hazardous” designation in the federal register. The public will then be able to submit comments for 60 days. 

“Communities have suffered far too long from exposure to these forever chemicals,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a press release. “Under this proposed rule, EPA will both help protect communities from PFAS pollution and seek to hold polluters accountable for their actions.”

Should I be worried about PFAS?

Chemical plants began creating and using PFAS in the 1940s for a variety of uses, including non-stick pans, stain-resistant carpets, fire extinguishing foam, candy wrappers, pizza boxes and dental floss. 

PFAS don’t break down easily or quickly, making the chemicals ideal for packaging and manufacturing. But they also don’t break down in the human body and can accumulate after years of frequent exposure. 

Studies have shown that high exposure to PFAS can lead to decreased fertility, developmental delays in children, cancer, hormone interference, increased cholesterol levels and reduced immune response, according to the EPA

Research into the full impact on humans is ongoing. 

Can we get rid of PFAS?

Scientists have tried to destroy PFAS by putting them in an incinerator. But extremely high temperatures can release the harmful chemicals into the air.

Earlier this month, Northwestern University published a study that showed PFAS compounds can be broken down in a safe and efficient way. 

Researchers were able to destroy the forever chemicals by adding them to a solution of lye (which is used to make soap) and dimethyl sulfoxide (which is used in medication for bladder pain syndrome) and then exposing them to high temperatures – but not nearly as high as an incinerator. 

The PFAS compounds then became harmless byproducts. 

Scientists are now trying to figure out if the new findings can be replicated at a bigger scale. 

How can I test for PFAS?

Last spring, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality required Chemours to expand its well testing area – originally established in 2019 – from Bladen, Cumberland, New Hanover, Sampson and Robeson counties to include Brunswick, Columbus and Pender.

Residents with private wells can request free testing at https://edataroom.uspioneer.com/chemoursnc, or call 910-678-1100. Parsons, an independent contractor, will conduct the testing and share the results. 

In addition, the Waccamaw Siouan STEM Studio recently got a $25,000 grant to conduct soil testing for a variety of toxic elements and chemicals, including PFAS. Tribal and non-tribal residents of the tribal area in Columbus County can sign up for the testing at https://bit.ly/3Q2Hfcm.

The EPA recently slashed its guidelines for GenX from 140 ppt to 10 ppt. It also cut its advisory level for other PFAS compounds like PFOA and PFOS from 70 ppt to 0.004 ppt and 0.02 ppt, respectively.

If the PFAS levels are higher than the guidelines, Chemours will provide bottled water, and  it also may install filtration systems, fund public water line extensions and pay water bills.

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Ashley Lomboy recently received a North Carolina Sea Grant Community Collaboration Research grant to test at least 50 soil samples in eastern Columbus County for a variety of toxic elements and chemicals, including PFAS. Lomboy is seen here at an informational meeting on July 18, 2022.
Photo by Les High