A PERSISTENT AND toxic industrial chemical known as GenX has been detected in the drinking water in Wilmington, North Carolina, and in surface waters in Ohio and West Virginia.
DuPont introduced GenX in 2009 to replace PFOA, a compound it used to manufacture Teflon and coatings for stain-resistant carpeting, waterproof clothing, and many other consumer products. PFOA, also known as C8, was phased out after DuPont was hit with a class-action suit over health and environmental concerns. Yet as The Intercept reported last year, GenX is associated with some of the same health problems as PFOA, including cancer and reproductive issues.
Levels of GenX in the drinking water of one North Carolina water utility, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, averaged 631 ppt (parts per trillion), according to a study published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters in 2016. Although researchers didn’t test the water of two other drinking water providers that also draw water from that area of the Cape Fear River, the entire watershed, which is a source of drinking water for some 250,000 people, is likely to be contaminated, according to Detlef Knappe, one of the authors of the study.
Research presented at a conference this week at Northeastern University detailed the presence of GenX in water in North Carolina and Ohio. In both cases, the chemical was found in water near plants that were owned by DuPont and since 2015 have been operated by DuPont’s spinoff company, Chemours. Both GenX and PFOA belong to a larger group of chemicals known as PFAS, which are structurally similar and believed to persist indefinitely in nature.
In Ohio, Jason Galloway, a university student who presented at the conference, measured the chemical in surface water as far as 20 miles from the Chemours plant, which is across the Ohio River in Parkersburg, West Virginia. After reading about the chemical in The Intercept, Galloway sampled water near the plant and tested it for GenX. Galloway found the chemical in various creeks and streams in the area at levels reaching more than 100 ppt. He explained that some of the chemical was likely deposited far from the plant by wind.
In North Carolina, GenX was present in water at even higher levels, with the most concentrated sample measuring 4,500 ppt. Although the EPA has not set legally binding regulations on any member of this class of chemicals, the agency last year set a drinking water standard for PFOA and the related chemical PFOS of 70 ppt. Several states have also set their own drinking levels for PFOA. Vermont has set the lowest so far at 20 ppt, and water experts in New Jersey have proposed an even lower level, 14 ppt, though it has not yet been finalized.
In response to an inquiry from the Intercept, the EPA provided a written response:
EPA is committed to protecting public health and supporting states and public water systems as the appropriate steps to address the presence of GenX in drinking water are determined. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA undertakes extensive evaluations of contaminants and uses the best available peer reviewed science to identify and regulate contaminants that present meaningful opportunities for health risk reduction. While EPA has not established a drinking water regulation, health advisory or health based benchmark for GenX in drinking water, the agency is working closely with the states and public water systems to determine the appropriate next steps to ensure public health protection.
In 2007, as it was phasing out the use of PFOA, DuPont applied to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to update its emissions permit. A resulting 2011 consent order between the company and the state agency allowed the company to emit wastewater containing as much as 17,500 ppt of GenX into a receiving stream near the plant, an amount that is 250 times the EPA drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS.
On stationery bearing the tagline “promoting a healthy environment,” the West Virginia document lays out the terms of the permit allowing DuPont to discharge its waste into the Ohio River and its tributaries. In the agreement, DuPont promised to implement a variety of “environmental control technologies that reduce environmental release and exposure.” A 2009 consent order between DuPont and the EPA, which The Intercept obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, shows that the company agreed to recover or destroy 99 percent of the GenX it produces.