Have you heard of GenX at the Tap?
Neither had the residents of Wilmington, NC.
The Cape Fear River in Wilmington, NC services 60,000 residents who, until now, assumed their drinking water was safe. Indeed, their water treatment plant operators have been cleaning the city’s water to in compliance with existing standards. In early June, however, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo learned that chemical giant Dupont’s subsidiary company, Chemours, has been dumping a toxic compound in the Cape Fear River since the 1980s.
That chemical? GenX.
GenX–a key compound used in Teflon products (chemical name: Perfluoro-2-propoxypropanoic acid)–is an unregulated compound that replaced an earlier, more harmful Teflon compound, C8. C8 and GenX are both Perfluorooctanoic acids (PFOAs), which got their bad name due to their cancer causing properties. PFOA’s are used in common non-stick products like pots and pans. GenX is supposed to be less harmful than C8, but they come from the same family of chemicals that persist in the environment and are hard for the body to break down.
“There are currently no federal drinking water standards for GenX. And because of an EPA rule, Chemours' release of GenX into the Cape Fear River for nearly four decades may have been perfectly legal...” reported CBS news.
Unfortunately, this is the common beat of chemicals regulation. A regulation often takes decades to put in place (see our article on this here, “Late to Regulate”), and chemical companies tweak the formula and develop the next unregulated cancer-causing agent before environmental scientists, engineers, and drinking water standards can catch up.
As a proprietary and unregulated chemical GenX is without official testing methods and standards. In short: it is hard to test for something we don’t know much about. While testing for PFOA’s is not yet common practice among all drinking water laboratories, testing tap water for GenX specifically is even more rare. Therefore analyzing your home’s water samples for GenX is a large undertaking, one that is difficult, expensive and should probably not be your first water testing experience.
Now well aware of the GenX situation, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority has ramped up their testing for GenX. They’ve also used recent health risk recommendations from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) to ensure their water is below the suggested 140 parts per trillion (ppt).
How did NCDHHS determine a health risk level for an unregulated compound? Well, lots of research on PFOAs have taken place in recent years, though not necessarily individual compounds. By investigating the available literature, NCDHHS came up with a revised assessment of 140 ppt. This is a ten-fold reduction from their previous health risk assessment level of 71,000 ppt – suggesting that the compound is significantly more toxic at low levels than initially predicted.
Today, Chemours is dumping less in the river, and Cape Fear Public Utility is giving daily updates and posting lab results to show they are managing GenX to below 140 ppt levels. The response was fast from all sides, but you can’t buy back decades of unmonitored exposure.
Additionally, Chemours isn’t on the hook for changing their act, yet. Unregulated, GenX is likely to continue to be a problem for the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority to manage before sending water to the people in Wilmington.
Interested in testing for GenX in your tap water? Tap Score can help. Take a look at our test specifically targeted for GenX.