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Chemicals in some North Carolina drinking water may worsen COVID-19 effects

DTH Photo Illustration. Parts of southeast North Carolina have chemicals in the water that may contribute to more severe COVID-19 symptoms.

Residents in southeastern North Carolina who have been exposed to chemicals in public drinking water are experiencing compounding effects from the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccine may not protect them as intended. 

These chemicals, called GenX, are present in the Cape Fear River and are putting residents at risk by suppressing their immune systems and causing other health issues. 

GenX is a member of a family of human-made chemical compounds known as PFAS. GenX chemicals are used in commercial products such as nonstick coating on cookware and food packaging. 

GenX exposure is associated with increased risk of health problems in animal studies, including issues in the kidney, liver, immune system and others, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Additionally, it can increase the risk of cancer.

PFAS chemicals have been called "forever chemicals" because they are unable to decompose in the environment, instead accumulating in living organisms. Jamie DeWitt, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University, said these chemicals can take up to 100 years to break down. 

GenX and PFAS contamination is widespread in the Cape Fear region from Fayetteville downstream to Wilmington, Beth Markesino, president of the nonprofit North Carolina Stop Gen-X In Our Water, said. She said scientists have found these chemicals in the Cape Fear River, the air, rainwater and even soil. 

What are the risks associated with COVID-19?

Research has shown from human and animal studies that PFAS exposure may reduce antibody response to vaccines and may reduce infectious disease resistance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

DeWitt said there is concern for residents who are heavily exposed to GenX due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

She said because the chemicals have been proven to inhibit immune function, it has the possibility to increase the severity or the infection rate of COVID-19 cases. DeWitt said ongoing research should better inform doctors and scientists in the future.

“When exposed to PFAS, it could be the rate of infection that increases," she said. "You're maybe more likely to get infected. And then if you're infected, there might be an increased likelihood of you having a severe infection.” 

Even more worrisome, she said, is the effect GenX and PFAS can have on the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine. She said because GenX and PFAS chemicals inhibit immune function, the intended immune response could also be inhibited. 

“When the COVID vaccine becomes available, people who live in highly contaminated areas might not be able to develop appropriate responses to the vaccine,” DeWitt said. “So that vaccine might not be as protective in them as it is in other people.”

Where did GenX come from?

In the 1980s, DuPont, a chemical manufacturing company with a facility near Fayetteville, started discharging a chemical known as PFOA into the Cape Fear River. In 2005, the use of PFOA was phased out after the EPA penalized DuPont for failing to report information about its risk to human health and the environment. 

In 2009, the company began using a substitute known as GenX claiming it was safer. In 2016, a significant concentration of GenX has since been detected in Cape Fear's waters. DuPont spinoff company, Chemours, promised in 2017 to capture, remove and safely dispose of the contaminants in the drinking water source.

In October 2020, North Carolina filed a lawsuit against DuPont and Chemours alleging they were aware of the health threats associated with GenX.

A matter of environmental injustice 

Dana Sargent, executive director at Cape Fear River Watch, said this crisis is a matter of environmental injustice. She said the filter systems that are effective in removing the chemicals, reverse osmosis, are around $200-$300, just for a basic model.

“There's a lot of people who can't afford that,” she said.

Sargent works to protect the river and has been active in the fight against PFAS. She signed a petition to urge the EPA to require Chemours to conduct health studies on the chemicals they discharge in the river.

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Markesino said that the pandemic has made access to clean water even more difficult. 

“With COVID-19, many residents have lost their jobs and cannot afford to buy water filters or bottled water,” Markesino said. 

Markesino said NC Stop Gen-X In Our Water is trying to acquire grants from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) to provide filters and water to those affected in the Cape Fear Region. But in November, she received an email stating that the NCDEQ didn't have the funds to provide these filters. 

“I'm still fighting and trying to get a grant to get filters for the downstream community,” Markesino said. 

Laura Leonard, public information officer for the NCDEQ, said in an email statement that the NCDEQ doesn't have a mechanism to provide direct funding for filters, even after reaching out to other state and federal agencies and were unable to identify any appropriate grant opportunities. 

In February 2019, the state approved a consent order with the goal to reduce PFAS contamination that prohibits Chemours from discharging Gen-X into the river, requires the company to eliminate GenX and PFAs discharge in the requirement and provide alternate water supplies for households around the Fayetteville Works Facility. The order, which was a result of lawsuits filed by Cape Fear River Watch against Chemours and the NCDEQ, also requires health studies on the PFAS found in surrounding drinking wells and long-term sampling of soil, water and air.

In October 2020, an addendum was approved to the order to provide more relief to downstream communities. The addendum requires the plant to build a barrier wall around the facility to capture contaminated groundwater, install filters in small highly contaminated on-site streams flowing into the river and capture stormwater or runoff from the most contaminated portion of the site and remove 99 percent of PFAS.

Leonard said the NCDEQ continues to implement the requirements in the consent order to reduce PFAS contamination reaching the downstream communities.

'The tip of the iceberg'

In 2018, the Water Safety Act, which aimed to provide a solution to the PFAS contamination in the Cape Fear River, was passed by the N.C. General Assembly.  It allocated about $5 million to the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory and $1.3 million to the DEQ. 

Facilitated by the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, universities such as UNC, N.C. State University, Duke University and others are conducting baseline water quality testing for PFAS, including GenX, through a program known as the North Carolina Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances Testing Network. 

Sargent said university research shouldn’t replace the duties of a regulatory body. She worries that the science and findings produced through the universities and collaboratory will not be able to be used to help inform policy, that the regulatory bodies will have to duplicate any studies to do so. 

“Science is just the method, and you want repeatability," Jeff Warren, executive director at the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, said. "And you want to see data samples, data sets bolstering the hypothesis.” 

He said it will be up to legislators to decide if they want to use the collaboratory’s data when the report is tendered in April 2021. 

Warren said with the funding, North Carolina has quickly moved to the front of PFAS research but that the state should continue supporting the research.

“The state needs to continue to make investments in research moving forward, because this is such a big issue,” he said. “And we're just at the tip of the iceberg.”


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