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Pittsboro's water supply contains unregulated chemicals with unknown effects


Heather Stapleton, an associate professor at Duke University, is researching the unregulated chemicals recently found in Pittsboro's water supply. 

The Town of Pittsboro recently found unregulated chemicals in its water supply.

The Town recently released a statement to its citizens informing them of the water situation.

“While the town’s drinking water meets or exceeds every State requirement, the Town of Pittsboro wants its water customers to know that recent analysis of our drinking water shows the presence of certain emerging contaminants," the statement said.

The chemicals found were possible carcinogens and synthetic industrial chemicals1,4-Dioxane, Bromides, PFOS and PFOA.

Researchers at Duke University and North Carolina State University are investigating how these chemicals are likely to affect residents that have been exposed to them through the water.

Heather Stapleton, an associate professor at Duke and one of the researchers leading the investigation, explained what kinds of chemicals have been found in the water. 

“There is currently a health advisory placed on two of the chemicals found in the water, PHOS and PFOA, which are only two of the over 300 kinds of PFAS, which is a class of chemicals," she said.

PFAS is a group of manmade chemicals that can lead to adverse health effects. 

"There is currently no health advisory placed on the other two chemicals found in the water," Stapleton said.

The heath effects of the chemicals in the water are not fully known, but Stapleton said PFAS has been linked to cancer and various other health concerns. She said less is known about 1,4-Dioxane and Bromides. 

“The case in Pittsboro is different than some of the others we have seen because we don’t know as much about these chemicals specifically and the effects their combinations will have on humans,” she said.

Stapleton said the levels of 1,4-Dioxane in the water supply exceed 100 micrograms per liter, and the EPA suggests that the levels not exceed around 35 micrograms per liter. However, this is just a suggested limit and is not actually enforceable, she said. 

“Speaking from my own perspective, personally, I would not drink the water," Stapleton said. "Since these chemicals are much higher than recommended and with the health effects unknown, I would have a filter system or something installed into my home before drinking the water from the town.”

Pittsboro Town Manager Bryan Gruesbeck said the chemicals are most likely coming from the town’s water source of the Haw River.

“The chemicals are probably sourced from industrial uses upstream from the town’s raw water intake on the Haw River,” Gruesbeck said in an email.

He added that these chemicals are not unusual to be found in drinking water supplies. 

“We became aware by testing the water," he said. "Many other water systems across the country are faced with the same issues regarding 'PFAS,' '1,4-Dioxane' and brominated compounds. None of these contaminants are regulated by the State or Federal government.”

The Town is currently in the process of assessing the situation and deciding what the next steps will be. 

“The health effects of these emerging contaminates are not fully known, however studies of these compounds are being conducted nationwide," the Town said in a statement. "The Town is pursuing near-term and long-term plans to address these emerging contaminates.”

A timeline about the unregulated chemicals put out from the mayor’s office on July 7, said the town engineer presented the results of the Masters Drinking Water Utility Plan completed by Hazen and Sawyer, an environmental and water-testing company.

“This study and resulting planning tools give Town Staff the ability to do more detailed planning of the estimated costs of various scenarios for drinking water, which could give us near term relief from the pollution in the drinking water,” the timeline said. 

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Gruesbeck said the Town is currently in the process of figuring out ways to remove or lower the unregulated chemicals. 

“(We are) determining the extent of the issue by implementing a pilot-testing program to identify alternate-treatment approaches to lower the treated water concentrations of certain unregulated chemicals,” he said.  

Stapleton said she and her team are in the beginning stages of conducting research on the chemicals in the water, which they began in July. They are in the process of taking samples of the water in the Haw River to test for the presence of these chemicals. 

Future phases involve taking blood samples from residents of Pittsboro who have been drinking the water to see if there are any abnormalities after being exposed to these unregulated chemicals, Stapleton said.

The Town will also be posting updates regarding the unregulated chemicals on their website as more information become available. 


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