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State 'forever chemicals' spotlight: North Carolina's drinking water contamination

  • State 'forever chemicals' spotlight: North Carolina's drinking water contamination
  • Millions could finally get relief from PFAS as new EPA standards take effect.

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Drinking water for at least 2.5 million North Carolinians is contaminated with the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS at levels exceeding new federal standards, according to an EWG analysis.

Across 49 drinking water systems, some far exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s PFAS standards finalized in April. Levels of the forever chemicals PFOA and PFOS in a community in Fayetteville were more than double and triple the new federal limits, respectively. In many other parts of the state, levels top the amount of PFAS in water the agency allows.

The EPA’s standards limit six PFAS in drinking water and may bring much-needed relief from the PFAS contamination crisis in North Carolina and beyond, if water utilities take the steps needed to comply.

To meet the standards, systems must treat water to remove PFAS, and look for ways to turn off the tap on forever chemicals pollution. Only by complying fully with their duties under the EPA’s standards will the water utilities be able to provide millions in North Carolina with the safe drinking water they’ve long sought.

EWG’s analysis is based on averaged drinking water testing results from 2022 reported by North Carolina, and information from the EPA’s Fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, also known as the UCMR 5.

What are PFAS?

PFAS are a group of thousands of highly toxic fluorinated chemicals used in numerous consumer and industrial products because of their nonstick and stain-resistance qualities.

Two of the most well-studied and notorious PFAS are PFOA, once used by DuPont to make Teflon, and PFOS, previously used in 3M’s Scotchgard. Because of health concerns, the two companies phased them out, under pressure from the EPA. The agency’s new drinking water limits will help remove lingering PFOA and PFOS from drinking water.

These and other PFAS don’t break down in the environment and they build up in the body. People can be exposed through drinking water and food polluted with forever chemicals and exposure to PFAS-laden dust shed by consumer products.

Contact with PFAS is linked to a number of serious health harms, including impaired immune system response, liver and kidney damage, hormone disruption, developmental and reproductive issues and several types of cancer.

Long-awaited limits

The EPA’s new standards will benefit North Carolina’s residents by targeting six notorious PFAS: PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and GenX. The legal limits, known as maximum contaminant levels, or MCLs, are the highest level of a contaminant allowed in drinking water.

The agency set a limit of 4 parts per trillion, or ppt, for both PFOA and PFOS. The MCL for GenX, PFNA and PFHxS is 10 ppt. A hazard index calculated for the mixture of PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and GenX was also introduced to account for combinations of chemicals in tap water.

Forty-seven community drinking water systems in the state had recent PFAS detections at levels above one or more of the MCLs, according to EWG’s analysis.

These levels of contamination will likely require those systems to take steps like changing water sources or installing filtration in order to remove PFAS from drinking water. Large water systems often use multiple water sources, and the EPA estimates that, on average, water systems with high PFAS levels will require corrective action at about half of the sites where the chemicals enter the system.

The regulations are a monumental victory for public health and environmental justice. But implementation – and the lower PFAS levels that will result – takes time: Water utilities have up to five years to comply. In the meantime, residents of communities with detections may need to consider in-home filtration.

Some of the largest utilities in the state are dealing with PFAS levels above the EPA’s new standards and will have to, or are currently, taking steps to address the contamination to provide clean drinking water.

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