Science panel: Health goal for chemical in water is right
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina science panel said Monday that state health officials were right to set a health target for a little-studied industrial chemical found in drinking water at a level 500 times lower than the manufacturer proposed.
The science panel created to advise North Carolina health and environmental leaders agreed on their GenX findings after about 10 months of review. Studies of the chemical used in non-stick surfaces like Teflon are scant, but there’s enough information to estimate how much humans can tolerate over a lifetime without increased risk of cancer and other conditions, the panel’s draft report said.
“It’s a long journey with GenX. It was not necessarily all easy and we’ve reached an end point of some sort,” said Jamie Bartram, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill water researcher who chairs the panel, which continues to examine other potentially harmful chemicals.
The state Department of Health and Human Services last year set its target for GenX at 140 parts per trillion, which cannot be enforced by law because it hasn’t been adopted through the process used for enforceable limits. The state health agency set the GenX mark for drinking water “using the best available science as federal and state standards were not available,” spokeswoman Kelly Haight said Monday.
The agency acted after the compound was unexpectedly found at levels beyond that level in treated water used by 200,000 customers in Wilmington 100 miles (160 kilometers) downstream and at hundreds of wells around the plant.
The chemical is produced at a factory near Fayetteville operated by The Chemours Co. It has proposed 70,000 parts per trillion as the health goal.
There are no federal health standards for GenX and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as an “emerging contaminant” to be studied. Studies point to GenX and related chemicals as having toxic effects in animals, but its effects in humans aren’t known.
GenX has been used since 2009. It replaced perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA — a chemical that was shown to stay in the body longer and which was blamed for increased cancer risks.
“Nobody yet knows whether GenX is toxic to humans at environmental exposure levels,” Ian Cousins, a Stockholm University professor who has studied the chemical, said in an email. “It’s not sound risk management to continue treating the chemical as we do now when there are such high levels of uncertainty about health effects in humans.”
GenX and similar perfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, have been used for decades in food packaging, carpet, leather and apparel, textiles and plastics.
A report released earlier this year by Northeastern University’s Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute and the Environmental Working Group found PFAS chemicals at sites in 22 states, and small amounts in tap water in North Carolina communities ranging from Greensboro to Lillington and Nashville. Testing also has found the phased out PFAS chemicals in the lake supplying water to residents of Durham and Cary.
The state Department of Environmental Quality is trying to force Chemours to completely stop emissions of GenX into the air and water, arguing the company and its predecessor DuPont have lied about discharging GenX for decades into the Cape Fear River. DuPont spun off Chemours in 2015.
Chemours is investing up to $100 million in its Bladen County plant to cut air emissions of GenX compounds by 99 percent within two years. About 400 people work at the chemical factory.
Spokesmen for Wilmington, Delaware-based Chemours had no comment on the report. The state environmental agency noted that the science panel’s report won’t be finalized until after a 30-day public comment period.
“The process of setting health advisories is a complicated one and there’s still a lot we don’t know about the long-term effects of GenX exposure,” North Carolina Sierra Club coastal programs coordinator Erin Carey said in an email. “It’s important for the state to set a stringent standard for exposure to be sure that North Carolinians are protected no matter what additional information comes to light.”
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