North Carolina residents contributing blood and information to examine level of exposure to PFAS Contamination




The United Nations has recognized the PFAS contamination crisis occurring in the Lower Cape Fear Region as a violation of international human rights law.

The Cape Fear River is the primary drinking water supply for over 1.5 million residents in NC.

On Thanksgiving Day, the U.N. published five letters to Dupont, Chemours, Corteva, the United States and the Netherlands. The letters are in response to a communication filed on behalf of Clean Cape Fear, which is seeking compensation for human rights violations connected to PFAS exposures coming from the Chemours Fayetteville Works Facility.

Clean Cape Fear is a grassroots community action group working to restore and protect soil, water, and food supplies from PFAS contamination.

Tanner Blue with WWAY in Wilmington reports that Clean Cape Fear says the acknowledgement feels warranted.

“I will say at first this is really validating” said Clean Cape Fear Co-Founder Emily Donavan. “There’s a lot of people that in our community that do feel that their rights have been violated, and it’s been very frustrating to watch a company like DuPont and now Chemours, kind of be given safe harbor, or really just a slap on the wrist.”

Chemours, the Netherlands and Corteva have responded to the United Nations. The United States and DuPont have not.

As those letters come to light, some in North Carolina are rolling up their sleeves to give blood and learn more about PFAS exposure.

Navassa residents participating in GenX Exposure Study

Navassa, a predominantly Black community in Brunswick County, gets its drinking water from the Cape Fear River.  So does its neighbor Wilmington, which is about six miles southeast. That makes the town’s residents prime candidates to join the GenX Exposure Study, a multisite study where environmental health researchers are examining the blood of people who’ve been exposed to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have contaminated waterways throughout the state.

In 2017, the year that GenX chemicals, which are a class of PFAS, were found in the Cape Fear River, N.C. State University epidemiologist Jane Hoppin and colleagues, including East Carolina University epidemiologist Suzanne Lea, launched the GenX Exposure Study to answer some of the many questions about the potential health impacts of the chemicals on humans.

Before the launch of the GenX Exposure Study, Lea and Hoppin had worked together on environmental health issues as part of the Center for Human Health and the Environment at N.C. State University. The center brings together researchers within the university and those from the East Carolina University’s Brody School of MedicineNorth Carolina Central University and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to investigate and lessen environmental effects on humans.

Lea recalls developing an action plan soon after Detlef Knappe, a professor in the N.C. State University Dept. of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering, shared research with the Wilmington Star News that detailed the presence of GenX compounds in the Cape Fear River.

“I said [to Jane], ‘Let me call the health director with the New Hanover County Health Department and see what we can do,’” Lea said. “And we wrote a grant to the National Institute of Health, and the New Hanover County health director talked to the city council and county commissioners and we started …”

In the lower Cape Fear Region, the study includes public water users in New Hanover and Brunswick counties and well water users in Bladen, Cumberland and Robeson counties, whose wells have been tested for contamination by Chemours or the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.

Chemours’ Fayetteville Works plant, on the border of Cumberland and Bladen counties, has been fingered as the culprit in the GenX contamination in the lower Cape Fear, both for dumping chemicals into the river and for the PFAS that came out of smokestacks and drifted on the wind to surrounding municipalities.

In the upper Cape Fear Region, the study includes residents of Pittsboro whose drinking water comes from the Haw River — a tributary of the Cape Fear — where contaminants emanating from industries in Greensboro and elsewhere have added to the level of chemicals.

Since 2017, the study has recruited roughly 1,400 participants, and researchers want to add more African Americans, Lea said.

“We really feel like at least 20 percent of that total group should be African Americans to reflect the size in our state,” she said.

African Americans account for roughly 22 percent of  North Carolina’s population, according to U.S. Census data.

(This story contains reporting by Will Atwater of NC Health News and Tanner Blue of WWAY)

Additional Reading:

Navassa residents roll up their sleeves to participate in PFAS exposure study

Fighting PFAS contamination in the Lower Cape Fear Region

Overview of PFAS in North Carolina