When the GenX contamination story first broke in 2016, North Carolinians were introduced to the “PFAS” family of manmade chemicals: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. GenX is just one of thousands of PFAS compounds. Scientists investigating this contamination believe that “North Carolina is the third highest state for PFAS exposure.”

Red:Contamination sites, Blue: EPA tap water detection
Source: EWG and Northwestern University

Historically, industry and consumers found PFAS chemicals pretty nifty: they reduce friction, are temperature resistant, and repel water and grease. They ended up in hundreds of applications: in cookware, in textiles and furniture, in food packaging, in waxes, paints and cleaning products, in fire-fighting foams, and in countless manufacturing processes.

About 20 years ago scientists realized that certain PFAS chemicals were harmful to human health. (Internal documents from 3M and DuPont suggest they knew of health hazards in the 1970s.) EPA banned some PFAS compounds from manufacture in the US, but others were considered “okay for now” in that fuzzy way the US evaluates environmental hazards. At the same time health concerns rose, researchers started finding PFAS in drinking water all over the US. Now, some scientists refer to PFAS as the “DDT or PCB” of our time.

A few characteristics make PFAS particularly concerning. Compounds are stable and persist in the environment, meaning they don’t break down easily. Some are so stable they are known as “forever chemicals.” They are mobile, meaning they move easily through water, because they don’t bond with sand or even filtering agents. And some of them bioaccumulate, meaning their concentrations increase over time in human organs and blood. Different PFAS compounds are linked to a wide range of health effects, including cancer and immune system problems, and changes in the function of the liver, thyroid, pancreas and other organs.

PFAS was so widely used for so long that an estimated 99 percent of us have some level of PFAS in our bloodstream. We are exposed to PFAS chemicals (even the “banned” ones) via contaminated drinking water, soil and food, and through products we import from other countries. Overall exposure looks like this:

Source: Minnesota Department of Public Health

Right now, EPA has a “health advisory” of 70 ppt (parts per trillion) for PFOA and PFOS, two very common chemicals. These advisories are non-regulatory and non-enforceable. EPA has been slow to set standards, which has both Democratic and Republican senators frustrated. It really is inexcusable, but it is in keeping with the behavior of the Trump EPA. Past administrations also (notably Ronald Reagan’s) added layers of bureaucracy in order to limit regulation.

What are officials in North Carolina doing, given that contamination is widespread in our state? In 2017, the NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) developed an interim health goal of 140 ppt for GenX in drinking water. Last year, the NCGA provided around $7 million to start testing drinking water through a new program called PFAST. State leaders have also pressed the feds to act more quickly on this issue.

However, some remain concerned about the NCGA’s desire to really tackle this problem. Here’s why:

  • The NCGA delegated testing to our universities, not the DEQ. So the universities can voice concerns (and they have), but they have no regulatory authority to act. This was intentional.
  • Researchers with PFAST are only authorized to test and report back on PFAS, not any other potentially hazardous compounds. Regulations exist for only about 200 of the 85,000 chemicals used in industry, though many more are believed to be harmful.
  • We have a statute on the books (General Statute 150B-19.3, passed in 2014 and known as the “Harrison Amendment”) that prevents our state agencies from implementing any standards that are more protective than minimal federal regulations. Without specific NCGA legislation, DEQ cannot legally establish regulations.
  • The NCGA also passed a law that forbids DEQ from developing rules that would cost industry more than $100 million over five years. Rules costing industry even more than $10 million require supermajority approval in the NCGA. Other states have already issued PFAS rules that will cost more than this. Several states also have settled lawsuits with Dupont, 3M and others to obtain funds for cleanup.

In general, many of the actions taken by the NCGA in the past decade prevent our state from addressing hazardous contaminants in our drinking water–including GenX and PFAS. They have built a legal system that preferentially protects industry–even known polluters–at the expense of citizen’s health and our vital natural resources.

As of now, bills are making their way through both the NC Senate (SB 518) and House (HB 568) that would override the Harrison Amendment and/or set standards for PFAS. Both of these bills have been introduced by Democrats, but will need Republican support if they are to pass.

Like many states, North Carolina will be in for a long and costly process cleaning up PFAS. We need to get started as soon as possible. Will our elected officials do their job and prioritize our health, or will they continue to protect know polluters?

You can act on this important issue: