Are toxic chemicals in our drinking water? Statewide testing should let us know.

August 06, 2018 03:34 PM

North Carolina’s leading university science researchers will try to find out if water supplies in the state have been contaminated with toxic compounds like GenX, an unregulated chemical discovered in the Cape Fear River last year.

Over the next year, each municipality in the state will have its water tested at the point where the water enters the public system. In addition, each municipality will pick one well that supplies public drinking water to test. Air testing will also be conducted across the state because emissions can settle on the ground. It isn’t known yet how many locations will have air testing.

The study will lay the groundwork for long-term monitoring of changes in the state’s water quality. If researchers find there is a threat, they will try to determine how much of an impact it has and find ways to protect public health.

State environmental regulators looking into the presence of GenX in the Cape Fear River determined the Chemours chemical company discharged it from its factory south of Fayetteville. GenX is a chemical used to make non-stick cookware and other products. The state Department of Environmental Quality issued notices of regulatory violations and has asked a judge to impose stronger measures requiring the company to eliminate or reduce air and water contamination.
As The News & Observer reported earlier this year, a federal class-action lawsuit contends Chemours knew the chemical was dangerous but secretly dumped it into nearby waters anyway. And an environmental group has sued the state environmental agency alleging it has not exercised its authority to order the company to immediately halt the pollution without going to court.

DEQ says as a result of its investigation GenX and two other compounds are no longer being discharged into the river, and water quality is now deemed to be within state health standards.

The municipal testing is being paid for with money from the state budget. Legislators put an additional $5 million into the state budget this year for staff and equipment for the N.C. Policy Collaboratory, a research and policy center at UNC. The focus of the study will be on drinking wells, chemical compound removal and the impact on air quality.

Researchers will be looking for chemicals that are classified as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and include GenX, which can be toxic. The state funding will pay for grants to more than 20 researchers at universities throughout North Carolina.

“This research model is the first of its kind for any state in the U.S., and we’re hopeful that it could motivate other states to develop similar research programs to study PFAS in the environment,” Jason Surratt, a professor with a background in environmental chemistry, said in an email.

Surratt will be the lead investigator for the study, which will be managed by the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. He said water and air samples will be collected multiple times from each location over the next 18 months.

Five research teams and an advisory committee will be comprised of faculty from N.C. State University, Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Wilmington, NC A&T, East Carolina University and UNC-Charlotte.

Two internationally recognized experts in emerging water contaminants will be co-chairs of the committee: Detlef Knappe, a professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at NCSU, and Lee Ferguson, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke University.

It was Knappe and his team that found high concentrations of industrial chemicals in the Cape Fear, including GenX, and published their findings in an academic journal. Ferguson and fellow Nicholas School of the Environment professor Heather Stapleton in December said they have found the GenX-related chemicals in Jordan Lake, two feeder streams and in Cary’s tap water.

Cary responded with its own tests and found that the contaminates were not sufficiently elevated to cause alarm and that the water was safe to drink.

The study will make periodic reports to the legislature and make its final report in December 2019.