Residents of two North Carolina counties fear a wave of serious illnesses, cancers and miscarriages is the result of decades of drinking tap water contaminated with toxic “forever chemicals.”
The tap water in Brunswick County and Wilmington, located in southeastern North Carolina, is some of the most toxic in the country when it comes to concentrations of PFAS — tiny compounds that aren’t broken down by nature or the human body, with levels higher than up to 155 times higher than what health officials consider acceptable.
Experts point the finger at a Fayetteville chemical plant they say has been dumping toxic chemicals into the Cape Fear River basin, which serves as the primary drinking water supply for more than 1.5 million North Carolina residents, since the 1980s.
The issue only came to light in 2017, when residents and local doctors banded together and came to terms with the many cases of serious and sometimes fatal illnesses they saw. Brunswick County native and public health activist Emily Donovan told DailyMail.com, “People here were sick all the time, desperately sick.”
A 2020 analysis of hundreds of blood samples from people in the Cape Fear River Basin seemed to confirm their fears. It showed that people in the area had levels of forever chemicals, or PFAS, in their blood up to 66 times higher than the government says is safe.
The Chemours plant activists say is responsible for the PFAS crisis is still operating in Fayetteville, about 50 miles from Brunswick County
The cities depicted on the map are just a handful of the many cities that have been found to have higher concentrations of PFAS in public water supplies and private wells
Brunswick County, North Carolina tops an unfortunate list of U.S. cities with the highest concentrations of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in their drinking water supplies.
According to the Environmental Working Group, which sets a stricter healthy limit for PFAS concentration than the federal government, Brunswick County water contains 155 times the amount of PFOA considered safe (1.09 parts per trillion). The state average, for reference, is 0.945ppt.
The toxic chemicals lurking in the Cape Fear River basin have been linked to several reports of cancer, kidney and liver damage, and birth defects in Wilmington and Brunswick County.
The ten worst cities for PFAS in drinking water
Concentrations are measured in parts per trillion (PPT)
- Brunswick County, NC at 185.9 ppt
- Quad Cities, Iowa at 109.8ppt
- Miami, Fla. at 56.7ppt
- Bergen County, NJ at 51.4ppt
- Wilmington, NC at 50.5ppt
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at 46.3ppt
- Louisville, Ky. at 45.2ppt
- New Orleans, LA at 41.8ppt
- Charleston, SC at 33.3ppt
- Decatur, Ala. at 24.1ppt
Information courtesy of a separate report from the Environmental Working Group
PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” got that name because of their ability to linger in the environment and the body for hundreds of years.
Their effects on humans are still not fully understood, but a growing body of research suggests they wreak havoc on our DNA, increase cancer risk and disrupt vital organs.
But because the effects of long-term exposure can take some time to manifest, officials are hesitant to say for sure that increased rates of illness are due to PFAS.
Dr. Jamie DeWitt, a toxicologist and PFAS expert at East Carolina University, told DailyMail.com that it would be going too far to attribute the area’s above-average cancer rates and low birth weight to PFAS without a comprehensive study.
But residents of the area, many of whom have suffered from breast cancerbrain tumors, kidney disease and miscarriages blame the Fayettville-based chemical plant Chemours, a DuPont spin-off.
The company has made many court settlements with entities alleging that the company has been poisoning the water and air around them, although the company has not explicitly admitted any wrongdoing.
There are anecdotal reports from doctors and patients alike, including a close friend of Ms. Donovan’s who passed away from cancer last fall, about mysterious cancer diagnoses.
Emily Donovan, the driving force behind the advocacy group Clean Cape Fear, told DailyMail.com, “What’s unnerving and alarming is that it’s in everyone in my family.
‘I have twins and I was seven months pregnant when we moved to this area. And so of course I drank a lot of water leading up to the end of pregnancy and then during breastfeeding, and throughout their lives until 2017.”
At that time there was news about the contamination of the tap water and the Donovans stopped drinking tap water as much as possible.
Although her children’s school was not quick to replace the tap with bottled water, a frustrating omission for Ms. Donovan who had to send her children to class “knowing they had no access to clean drinking water.”
Ms Donovan has been confronted head-on with the devastating effects environmental pollution can have, first with her husband who was diagnosed with a brain tumor three years after moving to the county in 2009 and survived, and then with her close friend Tom who was diagnosed with a brain tumor. rare male breast cancer that has spread to his bones and his brain.
Tom passed away last November not knowing for sure what caused his aggressive cancer.
Mrs Donovan said: ‘The one thing Tom has always wondered is whether the tap water caused his illness?
And even though we’ll never know if the tap water caused his illness, he was always adamant that it didn’t help, you know, obviously he shouldn’t be drinking this water.’
Her boyfriend’s passing shook Ms Donovan’s faith, she said, adding: “It just makes you wonder, what is humanity doing? Because this was completely avoidable, and when I say this was completely avoidable, it’s not his cancer, it’s the exposures we got.”
DuPont had been since 1980 producing a specific type of PFAS resin called Nafion that was supplied to General Electric in the 1960s for use in NASA’s Gemini Space Program. The company also began manufacturing PFOA in 2000, another type of PFAS that lingers in the body for years.
The company ended its use of PFOA and replaced it with a different type of PFAS called GenX in 2009, four years after DuPont settled about $107 million in a class action lawsuit arguing that it destroyed the drinking stocks in Ohio and West Virginia. contaminated by the production of Teflon.
“The settlement with DuPont in West Virginia is actually how the whole world was made aware of PFAS, especially PFOA,” said Ms. Donovan.
“When those settlements happened, we weren’t quite aware, to be honest. Those were eye-opening and they caught the attention of the nation. They caught my attention.
“And I quietly thought to myself, wow, I feel so sorry for those people in West Virginia, it’s good to see them get some degree of justice, not knowing at the time that I myself was poisoned and poisoned my own children who were brought up with this tap water because their pediatrician recommended drinking water.’
This amount was the first in several that DuPont and later its offshoot Chemours paid either in fines to the Environmental Protection Agency totaling more than $10 million or in settlements for alleged misconduct in 2017 totaling approximately $671 million.
In total, Chemours is said to have produced at least 54 different types of PFAS. And scientists have been able to detect a handful of them in people’s blood.
DailyMail.com reached out to DuPont and Chemours for comment, but has not received a response.
A groundbreaking report published in 2020 sampled blood from 344 residents of Wilmington, NC, coincidentally the fifth most PFAS-contaminated water system, from 2017 to 2018. While the federal government considers two nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) to be the maximum concentration before potentially causing harm , Wilmington residents saw some of their levels far exceed that percentage.
Cancer diagnoses in most cities identified by the Environmental Working Group as having high levels of PFAS in water are above the national average of about 439 cases per 100,000 people
Deaths from all types of cancer were higher than average in most of the top ten cities. Specific types of cancer have been more strongly associated with PFAS exposure, including kidney and testicular cancer
Concentrations of PFAS in the great blood reached 133 ng/ml, a 66-fold increase over the national recommended limit.
The median concentration of PFOS in the blood was 8.6 ng/ml, although in some cases it was as high as 26.8. PFOS, or perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, is extremely persistent, meaning it can take years to break down in the environment and is difficult for water treatment plants to break down.
The median concentration of PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, in human blood was 4.3 ng/ml in a range of 1.7 to 11 ng/ml. Meanwhile, levels of a chemical called PFHxS ranged from 1.2 to 8.5 ng/ml, though the median was 3.2.
Ms. Donovan shared her blood concentrations and those of her husband and twin son and daughter with DailyMail.com. She gave her measurements in parts per billion (ppb), which can be used interchangeably with ng/mL to measure the concentration of PFAS compounds in a given substance, such as water or blood.
Her total PFAS levels were 17.1 ppb and her PFOA level came in at 3.3 ppb. Her husband’s total PFAS levels were higher, though they don’t know why. His came to 26.8 parts per billion. Donovans’ son, 14, got 7.1 ppb and his twin sister got 9.6 ppb.
Mrs. Donovan said, ‘Luckily we are healthy now. But I guess what I live with is just the fear and fear of will that change?
“We see our friends go on and it just seems like there’s no rhyme or reason.”