A troubling environmental question that’s simmered for months in eastern North Carolina is finally hitting the mainstream — GenX1.

The short version is this: A potentially dangerous but poorly understood chemical apparently has been in one of the state’s primary rivers for years. Nobody really knows how bad it is, and now the state legislature appears like it will try to find out.

The company that produced GenX has been ordered to stop dumping it into the Cape Fear River, and the state Department of Environmental Quality says the water is safe to drink. But this issue is a reminder that as manufacturing technology advances, the risk to public health can move faster than our ability to protect ourselves.

Here’s what we know.

What is GenX?

GenX is a chemical used in the manufacturing of Teflon — the stuff that’s used in nonstick pans and in things like laptops and cell phones. In 2009, companies started using GenX in place of a different chemical (perfluorooctanoic acid) that was known to be toxic.

As an unregulated chemical, GenX had been allowed to be discharged into bodies of water in North Carolina since it was first developed until recently.

Where did it come from?

This part is clear. The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality says definitively that GenX was produced by the DuPont Chemours2 manufacturing facility just south of Fayetteville, on the Cape Fear River.

Known as Fayetteville Works, the 2,150-acre site straddles the Cumberland-Bladen county line and to this day employes about 900 people. Since as early as 1980, the company has produced GenX as a byproduct of its work. In 2009, they started intentionally making GenX to sell.

Researchers at N.C. State University first reported elevated levels of GenX in the Cape Fear River in 2016. The state started an investigation in June 2017 and also detected the compound in water sampling.

In early September, the state ordered DuPont Chemours to stop dumping the chemical and others like it into the river.

The circle shows the location of the DuPont facility on the Cape Fear River. Map by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.

Where is it being found?

Basically everywhere downriver of the plant.

Regular testing published by Brunswick County3 has found that levels of GenX have remained low since November and are below the threshold levels they established as acceptable.

Cape Fear River. Photo by Stuart Borrett via Flickr (Creative Commons)

 

What harm does it cause?

That’s the scary part. We don’t really know. People are worried that it is toxic, just like its predecessor chemical.

The federal government has all sorts of rules about chemicals we know are toxic, including how much of it is allowed in our air and water. There are no such guidelines at this point for GenX.

DuPont Chemours says GenX is safer than the chemicals it used to use and the state’s claims are “unsupported by any facts or science.” The company has also said they believe GenX discharges “have not had an impact on the safety of the drinking water that comes from the Cape Fear River.”

Testing by the city of Wilmington and Brunswick County are now showing levels of GenX below what the state of North Carolina considers likely to be safe.

But Former Wilmington mayor Harper Peterson told lawmakers: “I think we shouldn’t be drinking the water,” according to the News and Observer.

Can’t we just take it out of the water?

It’s not that simple. The chemical makeup of GenX makes it resistant to current water treatment techniques.

What’s being done about it?

The N.C. House is considering a bill that would redirect $1.3 million to the Department of Environmental Quality specifically to test bodies of water, soil, air and groundwater for the chemical and analyze the results. It seems like the first step the state wants to take is get a handle on the scope of the problem.

There could be a vote as soon as this week.

Local governments are moving faster. Brunswick County, for example, has sued DuPont Chemours over the chemical discharges. They are also moving to hire an engineering firm that can plot out how to improve their water treatment plants to remove GenX and chemicals like it.

Since DuPont Chemours is not allowed to dump GenX into the river anymore, the company is storing its wastewater in tanks and shipping it off-site to be incinerated.

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