Invisible Threats: PFAS and the push for policy reform in North Carolina

While invisible to the eye, toxic “forever chemicals” are so common in our daily lives it’s nearly impossible to avoid. Gov. Roy Cooper has declared this week PFAS Awareness Week in North Carolina to raise awareness of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) found in drinking water.

PFAS are a synthetic class of chemicals that can take over a decade to break down in the body due to their biologically persistent nature. Large corporations use this class of artificial chemicals in the production of goods because of their convenient chemical properties. From a manufacturing point of view, the chemicals are extremely useful. But from a consumer point of view, health concerns loom. 

“North Carolinians deserve clean water and we must be at the forefront of the fight to contain forever chemicals,” Cooper said in his proclamation for PFAS Awareness Week. “We are holding polluters accountable, researching solutions, and working hard to protect people’s health.”

More than 300 water systems across North Carolina have PFAS levels that exceed new standards, but exposure to the harmful chemicals can come from many products we use everyday. 

Human Exposure 

Over 90% of people in the United States are exposed to PFAS through a wide array of sources. 

Over 15,000 different manmade chemicals are categorized as PFAS, but their impact on human health extends far past water sources. From water-repellent clothing to shampoo, nonstick cookware, pesticides, and paint, PFAS enable many household items to become water and oil-resistant, among other benefits. 

“Their chemical properties are fantastic, but oftentimes the health effects are not realized until later,” explained Dr. Emmanuel Obeng-Gyasi, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University (NCA&T). “These chemical factors are what makes them widely used. But because of that carbon-fluorine bond that all these PFAS have, they are persistent. In other words, when they get in the environment, it takes a long time to get rid of them. When they get in the body, it takes a long time to break it down.”

In an interview with the Carolina Journal, Obeng-Gyasi described his background teaching courses in environmental health and safety and leading a lab researching environmental contaminants. With 12 students working in the lab, their current research is funded through a grant from the National Institute of Health and focuses extensively on the effects of human exposure to not just one chemical but the combined effect of multiple pollutants. 

“Generally speaking, we as humans aren’t just exposed to one thing,” Obeng-Gyasi explained. “My lab is really interested in combined exposures and looking at the whole picture, rather than just looking at one chemical because people aren’t just exposed to one thing. There’s a lot of stuff together which bring about disease.”

PFAS exposure originates from product manufacturing, which comprises discharging chemicals into the environment. Wastewater and smokestacks can contaminate the environment, which has resulted in North Carolina being one of five states with the highest PFAS levels, according to Obeng-Gyasi. The other states with high levels are California, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York. 

Contaminated water is a particular problem around Wilmington due to the discharge by industry of contaminated water into the Cape Fear River for 40 years. But in other areas where such water contamination isn’t as large a factor, PFAS exposure can come primarily from household items. Regardless of the source, PFAS exposure begins before birth and cannot be avoided because the chemicals are ubiquitous in the environment.

Health Effects

PFAS impact essentially every system in the human body.

A 2022 report by Obeng-Gyasi details the profound human risks ranging from liver damage and increased risk of thyroid disease to cancer and a decrease in fertility. Animal studies have shown direct carcinogenic effects from PFAS exposure, resulting in some kind of dysfunction. 

While the cardiovascular and reproductive systems are impacted, data has also shown that PFAS can cross the blood-brain barrier, meaning that they can enter the neurological system. Combined with other factors like metal exposure or stress, direct outcomes can vary.

“Its effects on health are varied,” he said. “Generally speaking, it affects almost every system within the human body. Some of the more notable health effects have been its effects on the thyroid, but also it has extensive effects on the liver, the cardiovascular system, the kidney.”

Some of the largest chemical corporations have faced lawsuits amid ongoing health concerns. In 2015, Chemours became a spinoff of Dupont, the chemical company that owned the Fayetteville Works manufacturing site along the Cape Fear River.

The release of PFAS into the river caused health and environmental concerns resulting in legislative and court actions.


Money and power shape everything. 

Pointing to the detrimental health effects, Obeng-Gyasi supports limits on the use of PFAS. Any use should be done with caution, he says, and policymakers should ensure that science drives the policy, rather than politics.

However, when asked what could be driving policymakers to continue stalling solutions, Obeng-Gyasi said many of the companies have a large influence with money and power behind the scenes. 

“Everyone knows PFAS are bad; that’s been established,” said Obeng-Gyasi. “So regardless of where one is politically, that’s a fact that people accept. But getting into some of the more intricate banning of various PFAS could be an issue, depending on the size of it. Many of these companies have a large influence and they’re able to maybe sometimes obfuscate the facts, or maybe, if the science isn’t clear, they can say, ‘well, you know, there’s no definitive evidence of this, and it’s still ongoing.’”

If health impacts aren’t clearly visible at initial doses of exposure, there often isn’t an urgent call for policy action. In Cooper’s PFAS awareness proclamation, he noted that special interests lobby to block clean drinking water rules. A glimpse into this reality is depicted in the documentary Dark Waters, in which a corporate defense attorney takes on an environmental lawsuit against a chemical company. 

The Biden administration announced the first-ever national limit on PFAS in drinking water earlier this year. Based on all available data, more than 300 water systems in North Carolina have PFAS levels that will exceed the new standards.

The post Invisible Threats: PFAS and the push for policy reform in North Carolina first appeared on Carolina Journal.


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