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PFAS in the Tar-Pamlico and Neuse River Basins

Environmental, Neuse River Watershed, Sound Rivers, Tar-Pamlico Watershed, Water Quality

Posted on September 4th, 2023

What are PFAS?

Perfluorinated alkyl substances, or PFAS, are a family of man-made chemicals that have been widely used in manufacturing and consumer products — like nonstick cookware and water resistant clothing — since at least the 1950s. The spotlight on PFAS in North Carolina arose through GenX and Chemours-related compounds, however, the issue of PFAS is larger than just one compound or one company. There are more than 10,000 types of PFAS, all of which are biopersistent, meaning they remain in organisms indefinitely without breaking down, and are bioaccumulative, meaning that over time, they build up in ever increasing amounts in people, wildlife, aquatic life, and the environment. Because these chemicals take thousands of years to break down and accumulate in people, wildlife, aquatic life, and the environment, they are also known as “forever chemicals.”  In an October 2022 report released by Waterkeeper Alliance, surface water samples were collected from 114 waterways in 34 states and the District of Columbia (D.C.) by riverkeepers for analysis for PFAS. 83% of the waters tested across the country were found to be contaminated by dangerous PFAS chemicals. What this means–dangerous PFAS pollution is widespread in surface waters across the country.

PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” are linked to increased incidences of severe and potentially fatal health effects. These include an increased risk of cancer, particularly kidney and testicular, impacts on reproduction and fertility, liver and thyroid diseases, and weakened immune and hormone functions. Children are at a higher risk of adverse health effects from PFAS due to consumption relative to body weight, and most common impacts are on childhood development and behavior.

Most Americans have been unknowingly exposed to PFAS, primarily through ingestion of drinking water. Standard municipal drinking water treatment systems are not designed to filter out PFAS.

Another health concern associated with PFAS is is the consumption of fish from contaminated waters. PFAS accumulate in the tissues of fish and other aquatic organisms, and will remain in the tissues of fish even after cooking. Recent studies have determined that consuming one freshwater fish is equivalent to one month of drinking PFAS-contaminated water at harmful levels. EPA testing shows that nearly all fish in U.S. rivers and streams are contaminated at unsafe levels with PFAS, which means that communities who depend on freshwater fish as a food source are facing even higher exposure risks. 

  • PFAS are used to make products water resistant or waterproof, and grease resistant. Products containing PFAS include: food packaging and wrappers, firefighting foam, clothing and textiles, especially waterproof materials (e.g., waterproof rain jackets), carpeting, flooring, non-stick pans.
  • Facilities and industries that discharge or leach PFAS into the environment, and ultimately drinking water sources include: sludge fields, wastewater treatment plants, paper mills, landfills, airports, military bases

There is currently no enforceable drinking or surface water standard for PFAS at either the state or federal level. 

  • The EPA is proposing drinking water standards for 6 different PFAS. If approved, these standards will be legally enforceable and will require public water systems to monitor PFAS levels and notify the public if any levels exceed these standards:
    • PFOA and PFOS: 4.0 ppt
    • PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX Chemicals: limits any mixture containing a presence of one or more of the PFAS listed. If present, water systems will use a hazard index calculation to determine if the mixture proposes a potential risk.
  • NC Health advisory 70 ppt combined for PFOA and PFOS. The US EPA has also established non-enforceable health advisory levels that can be found here.

PFAS in the Tar-Pamlico and Neuse

To date, little is known about levels of PFAS in the Tar-Pamlico and Neuse rivers’ watersheds. In order to determine if PFAS are a widespread issue and present at concerning levels in our watersheds, we have begun sampling of surface waters through projects with Waterkeeper Alliance and Waterkeepers Carolina, using Cyclopure water testing kits. 

  • Sound Rivers has conducted surface water sampling for PFAS sampling at 12 locations across the Tar-Pamlico and Neuse River basins. Sampling locations were chosen based on proximity to known or suspected sources of PFAS, including near sludge fields, an air force base, an airport, a phosphate mining operation, and a paper mill.
    • Tar-Pamlico Results: PFAS detected in all six samples collected, with levels ranging from 6.2 – 27.9 parts per thousand (ppt)
      • Samples were collected from: Tar River at the Faulkland boat ramp, Town Common in Greenville, Pamlico River at Aurora phosphate mine, and two Tar River tributaries in Tarboro
    • Neuse Results: PFAS detected in all 6 samples collected, with levels ranging from 16.7 – 55.0 ppt
      • Samples were collected from the Neuse River at Raleigh, Goldsboro, Clayton, New Bern and the Croatan National Forest
  • The most common compounds detected in our sampling sites were PFOS and PFOA.
  • What do these results mean? The limited sampling we have conducted to date shows that PFAS are present at various locations in both the Tar-Pamlico and Neuse river basins. In some of these samples, levels of individual PFAS exceed state and federal health advisories. PFAS detected at any level are a concern because our drinking water treatment plants are not equipped to remove PFAS contamination. We only tested for a limited number of PFAS (40 out of the more than 10,000 individual compounds), which means that other PFAS could also be present. We are continuing to monitor for PFAS as possible sources come to our attention, and we will continue to update our membership with more information and resources as this emerging contaminant becomes better understood. 
  • Tell your elected officials we need strong protections from PFAS: We need to hold polluters accountable for the cost of cleanups and removal of PFAS from drinking water for the health of our communities and environment.  Find contact information for your elected officials at at: www.usa.gov/elected-officials
  • Tell the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission that we need to regulate PFAS as a class of chemicals: PFAS are entirely manufactured, meaning that companies are making more and more variations of PFAS, which makes it difficult to assess exposure and impossible to study the degree of harm arising from each type of PFAS. They must be regulated as a whole, or as a class, instead of targeting a handful of chemicals. 
  • Tell the Department of Environmental Quality to better regulate PFAS by:
    • Banning the discharge of PFAS as a class of toxic pollutants at the Industrial User level and the Publicly Owned Treatment Works. 
    • Banning the use of PFAS in firefighting foam, which endangered first responders and water quality.
    • Requiring ongoing monitoring, disclosure, and limitations of PFAS in permits for all effluent, biosolids, and leachate.
  • Filter your drinking water at home: Contaminated drinking water poses the greatest threat of exposure to PFAS. No filters will remove all PFAS from your water, but with regular maintenance, any filter will be better than no filter at all.

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