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The Daily Tar Heel

Town of Pittsboro sues several manufacturers for PFAS contamination

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Chatham County Courthouse pictured on Sept. 8, 2022. 

On Jan. 26, the Town of Pittsboro filed a lawsuit accusing several companies of PFAS contamination in the area, including in the Town’s drinking water.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of synthetic chemicals made of carbon and fluorine atoms. They do not exist naturally in the environment and are known as “forever chemicals” for their longevity — taking anywhere from hundreds to thousands of years to break down naturally.

These chemicals, which are associated with increased cholesterol, increased risk of kidney or testicular cancers and decreased birth weight in infants, reached levels as high as 1,000 parts per trillion in the Haw River in 2018. Current Environmental Protection Agency guidelines suggest that levels of PFOA and PFOS —the two most common PFAS — should be no higher than 0.024 parts per trillion combined.

The lawsuit claims that several industrial manufacturers — including DuPont, 3M, Chemguard and Tyco Fire Products — produced and improperly disposed of PFAS despite knowing it would result in the pollution of the Haw River watershed and, ultimately, the Town’s drinking water.

Furthermore, the lawsuit claims that the defendants intentionally concealed the presence and dangers of the PFAS they were producing from the public by denying and downplaying the risks posed by the chemicals. Defendant 3M, for example, admitted in a 1960 internal memo that the company’s PFAS chemical waste would “eventually reach the water table and pollute domestic wells,” according to the lawsuit.

Dupont has a history of legal battles over PFAS, including 3,550 settled lawsuits from victims of PFAS-related illnesses and economic damages.

Should Pittsboro win this lawsuit, the Town will be seeking damages from the defendants in order to recoup costs associated with the PFAS contamination.

The Granular Activated Carbon advanced filtration system, for example, was purchased by the Town as an emergency measure to mitigate the discovered PFAS contamination at the cost of about $3.5 million. This system, which went online last year, has been successful in removing nearly 90 percent of PFAS.

“It was the one that we were able to get online, essentially the fastest,” Pittsboro Public Information Officer and Emergency Management Coordinator Colby Sawyer said.

According to Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton, PFAS contamination is not exclusive to Pittsboro, and low levels of PFAS exposure have now been detected in blood samples worldwide. 

Sutton said researchers trying to perform a health study on the impact of PFAS were unable to find any uncontaminated samples to form a control group, despite taking blood from people all over the world.

“None of the people that they had taken samples from had absolutely zero levels of PFOA or PFOS in their body,” she said.

However, the levels seen in Pittsboro and the surrounding area are abnormally high, Sutton said. North Carolina is a hotspot for PFAS, and Pittsboro has some of the highest levels in the state.

According to Pittsboro Mayor Cindy Perry, PFAS were initially discovered by the Town in 2015 as local universities found contamination in their own water systems and alerted the Town.

“It has done nothing but increase over the course of time since then,” Perry said.

Perry said that the lawsuit will most likely be a drawn-out process as a result of the number and power of the defendants involved and that it is also possible that the lawsuit could be removed to a federal court in South Carolina, where there have been similar cases.

“We're glad that we're finally making these major corporations accountable for the damage they've done,” Perry said.

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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