Goodwin, North Carolina Newlyweds Katie and Dawson Teo are expecting their first child, a son, in December. The cute couple, in their early twenties, thought their quiet home here would be a safe place for their growing family, surrounded by green acres and horses in the backyard.
But daydreams of country life turned into a nightmare when a neighbor warned them in January that their well water might be contaminated.
“Gary said ‘I did a water test and we have a lot of jenx.’ And I’m like what? What is that?”
Test results showed that their drinking water was filled with GenX and other polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as forever chemicals because of how long they can persist in the environment and the human body.
Officials say many of the compounds found in North Carolina’s drinking water are uniquely sourced from Chemours, a division of chemical giant DuPont, which produces PFAS at its chemical plant in Fayetteville Works, which is more than 25 miles from Tues’ home . .
The Teuse family is like many families near the factory, which is near the Cumberland-Bladen County line. In 2017, it was revealed that chemicals from the plant had contaminated the Cape Fear River with PFAS GenX. In 2019, Chemours of Wilmington, Dell, agreed to a consent order that resulted in a $12 million fine to address damage to private drinking water wells along the coast. As part of the order, the company agreed to take measures to reduce pollution from its plant and provide treatment for those with contaminated wells.
Tews said Chemours delivered the bottled water to their home shortly after the test results, but the clean water supply dried up within a few weeks. They said they called Chemours’ pollution hotline and were promised more bottled water and a discount card in the mail to buy the water, but weeks passed and neither showed up.
“All we drink is water; we’re not really soft drinkers,” said Dawson Teo. “I just feel like the burden has been put on us, and I don’t think that’s something we have to deal with.”
They called again, and a company worker told them a second time that it could take up to a month for the debit card to arrive. That was six months ago now.
Since then, the Teuse family has been hydrating with water from a contaminated tap.
We’re not supposed to drink it, but we ran out of water,” said Katie Teo.
Chemours declined multiple requests for an interview. Lisa Randall, a company spokeswoman, said in a statement that Chemours “follows the guidelines set forth in the Request for Approval Agreement” and has installed technology to significantly reduce the plant’s PFAS emissions to air, water and soil.
The CDC warns that exposure to PFAS may lead to adverse health effects including immune and liver problems, low birth weight, increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, and an increased risk of high blood pressure and preeclampsia — a blood pressure condition — in women. pregnant women.
“Chemours has a responsibility to correct this matter,” said Jeff Geisler, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who helped negotiate the 2019 approval order. “The Environmental Quality Department has a responsibility to hold Chemours accountable.”
In accordance with the order, Chemours is committed to providing quality testing. If chemicals above the health advisory level are detected, the company must initially provide bottled water and eventually a permanent potable water solution to deliver city water when possible or filters that can remove PFAS from the water.
According to the latest sampling data, Chemours chemicals have contaminated more than 8,800 wells within 90 miles of its plant.
The pollution extends to nine counties and includes the Cape Fear River, a source of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of North Carolina residents.
In the three years since the approval order, more than 1,900 wells have enough GenX to qualify for a comprehensive filtration system, but less than 6% have been installed.
At the recent meeting of the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners, which is suing the Chemours, residents expressed their frustration.
“Please help. Many of us are experiencing health effects from this water,” Fayetteville resident Debra Stewart told the commissioners.
Stewart said she has participated in studies measuring PFAS levels in the blood. “I have a dog positive for four different types of PFAS at 480 parts per trillion, and our blood is in the tens of thousands.”
In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a lifetime drinking water health advisory for GenX, Chemours’ signature PFAS, at 10 parts per trillion. That’s 14 times lower than the North Carolina recommendations set in 2018.
The change means that thousands of additional wells are considered polluted, increasing Chemours’ treatment bill.
Chemours challenges the EPA’s advice in federal court, calling the Environmental Protection Agency’s (PFAS) health recommendations “scientifically unsound.”
“Based on all the available evidence, these chemicals are harmful at very low levels,” said Detlev Knaby, a professor at North Carolina State University who led the initial discovery of Cape Fear River pollution in 2013.
“We call this tobacco science,” said Phil Brown, a professor at Northeastern University and co-director of the PFAS Project Lab, a team of researchers who have been studying chemicals since 2015.
After finding links to the health damages of the popular PFAS chemicals mass-produced in the 1970s, the chemical industry came up with “safer” alternatives including GenX. Now, there are thousands of PFAS compounds and a few long-term studies on the individual compounds.
“Because it can take many years to get the research done, they can claim that there isn’t enough research,” Brown said. He likens this practice to the game of whacking a mole and urges the organization of chemicals as a class or family of substances.
As Chemours’ legal battles continue, municipal water treatment plants and local governments cover the cost of filtering chemicals. Cumberland County has already committed $21 million to expand its water areas. Residents who depend on the Cape Fear River say they are seeing an increase in their water bills to make up for technology upgrades.
Residents who live at the Chemours’ Fayetteville Works facility in Bladen, Cumberland, Robeson and Sampson counties can call Chemours at 910-678-1101 for free drinking water samples.
Residents who live in New Hanover, Brunswick, Pender or Columbus counties can call 910-678-1100 or complete an online Chemours form to request quality samples or for more information.