(CN) — In 2019, Gray’s Creek Elementary, a school just outside of Fayetteville, North Carolina, announced it would provide its students with bottled water after it received reports that its well water contained PFAS chemicals.
Known as forever chemicals because the compounds take a long time to break down and in some cases never do, drinking water wells in proximity to a chemical plant built by industrial giant DuPont near Fayetteville have been testing positive for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances since 2017, when officials first began to reckon with the extent of the environmental damage.
In October 2020, the North Carolina Attorney General sued Chemours, a spin-off from DuPont based in North Carolina, saying that the company had known for years that the chemical posed a threat to human health, but did nothing to stop it.
Specifically, several organizations contended the company had been releasing forever chemicals into the Cape Fear River, which provides drinking water to more than hundreds of thousands of residents in proximity to the chemical plant near Fayetteville.
Several environmental organizations petitioned the EPA to force the company to conduct an epidemiological study to determine the extent to which the chemicals were in the community watershed and whether it had bioaccumulated in residents and harmed health and potentially caused cancer.
The EPA responded by saying it would conduct a review much more limited in scope than that requested. Specifically, the agency said it would test for 30 of the 54 chemicals identified by the environmental organizations and North Carolina public officials in the area.
The EPA said the remaining 15 chemicals did not fit the definition of PFAS chemicals, prompting outrage among the petitioners.
“As the director of an environmental nonprofit who believed in and trusted the folks of this EPA to do the right thing, I am furious; as a poisoned community member who is also grieving the loss of a firefighter brother whose cancer could be explained by this data, I am heartbroken,” said Dana Sargent, of Cape Fear River Watch, when the review was announced.
On Friday, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an environmental organization, released a press release saying the trove of documents the EPA recently provided to them indicates they have zero consistent definition of PFAS chemicals within the agency and are likely unprepared to produce adequate testing as a result.
The advocacy organization is trying to determine how the agency determines what qualifies as a PFAS and what does not.
“There are more than 12,000 of PFAS chemicals and currently the national testing strategy encompasses about 6,500 of them,” said Kyla Bennett a chemist for PEER, in an interview with Courthouse News. “The fact they are not able to define them and regulate them is despicable.”
PEER sued the EPA in April, accusing them of withholding documents, and has consistently sought materials related to the scientific rationale behind defining PFAS, but environmentalists have grown increasingly frustrated with the agency’s approach to divulging the science.
“We want to make sure it's not arbitrary and capricious,” Bennett said. “But the documents they gave us are essentially nonresponsive.”
There is some suspicion in the environmental community that industry pressure influences the decision-making in a way that is at odds with purely scientific modes of investigation into the chemicals and their impact on human health.
“They could be leaving out PFAS that are potentially very dangerous,” Bennett said. Scientists typically look for whether chemicals are persistent, toxic or bioaccumulative. In the instance of most PFAS, they are all three.
Studies have linked some of the chemicals, particularly the ones found near Cape Fear River, to cancer, as they have caused tumors in animals in laboratory settings.
The concern is not restricted to the Cape Fear River watershed. Firefighters are suing in federal courts all over the United States, saying the gear they use contains unsafe levels of PFAS chemicals.
The state of Massachusetts filed suit in federal court in May, saying manufacturers of PFAS chemicals deceived consumers and violated clean drinking water laws.
“For decades, these manufacturers knew about the serious risks highly toxic PFAS chemicals pose to public health, the environment, and our drinking water — yet they did nothing about it,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.
Bennett said the presence of these chemicals could be a major source of widespread litigation as more communities come to grips with their potential impacts on human health.
“It’s going to be a massive legal issue,” she said.
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