Forever chemicals found disproportionately in poorer, more racially diverse U.S. neighborhoods

Samantha Kummerer Image
BySamantha Kummerer WTVD logo
Friday, April 21, 2023
Water contamination found more often in poorer communities
"Everything I love about when I first came here in 1980 has systemically become contaminated; destroyed. It's been hard."

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (WTVD) -- For Debra Stewart, her land in Cumberland County use to be paradise; but not anymore.

"Everything I love about when I first came here in 1980 has systemically become contaminated; destroyed," Steward said. "It's been hard."

Six years ago Stewart's private water well was one of nearly 7,000 across four counties that tested positive for PFAS after it was revealed that the local chemical plant Chemours and its predecessor, DuPont, had dumped PFAS into the Cape Fear River for decades.

"We didn't know that we were possibly drinking poison," Stewart said reflecting back.

SEE ALSO | 'It's terrible': Fight for clean water in Cumberland County extends into its 6th year

"Are we poisoning someone if we sell them our honey? Are we poisoning someone if we give them our chicken eggs or blueberries?" Mullins questioned.

per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a group of man-made chemicals that are used to make products resistant against stains, grease and water. PFAS are often referred to as forever chemicals because it is hard for them to break down. There is still a lot unknown on how longtime exposure to these chemicals impacts people's health but the CDC said high levels of certain PFAS may lead to negative health impacts.

In addition to her water, Stewart and her son, Jason, also tested positive for high levels of PFAS in their blood. She said her rabbits, dogs and horses have also been impacted by the contaminated well water.

Stewart said her son suddenly died in October 2022, and she can't help but question if PFAS had any impact.

Stewart is one of at least 3 million people that the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) estimates is impacted by higher levels of PFAS in their water systems.

A spokesperson for DEQ said in addition to the investigation at Chemours, 2022 data revealed 42 of the 50 public water systems tested across the state detected PFAS levels above the EPA maximum level.

PFAS contamination extends beyond Chemours and North Carolina.

An ABC Data Team analysis found at least 143 million Americans have been potentially drinking, bathing and washing with water contaminated by PFAS. The true number of impacted Americans is likely much higher as the analysis focuses on community water systems and doesn't account for the millions of others who served on military bases, worked at factories, airports, etc., that could have been contaminated with PFAS water over time.

Our America: Trouble On Tap | Life with Forever Chemicals

Episode 1 of "Our America: Trouble On Tap" takes a look at per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances contamination in North Carolina. We travel to Cape Fear, North Carolina, often referred to as ground zero for PFAS water contamination or water polluted by toxic "forever chemicals."

Where PFAS are more common

While at least 42% of the country's zip codes have at least one contaminated water source, the ABC Data Team analysis uncovered the location of these spots disproportionately falls in areas that are poorer and more racially diverse that the national average.

The ABC Data Team analysis uncovered 80% of the 400 contaminated water sites in North Carolina are in zip codes that report an average median income below the national average. Additionally, 42% of the sites in the state fall in areas where there is a higher population of nonwhite residents.

In Fayetteville, the average annual income is less than $35,000, up to 20% of residents don't have health insurance and 83% of residents are nonwhite, according to the 2021 U.S. Census American Community Survey.

The impacts of more contaminated sites in these areas mean residents who already face wealth and health barriers are taxed with potentially more burdens.

Moving on and living with PFAS

Mike Watters lives about a mile from Chemours and has been working to educate his community about the dangers they face.

"This was my dream," Watters said of his Grays Creek property.

For five years, he had a large-scale garden, but now he's trying to figure out how to continue planting crops amid the contamination.

"My soil for life is useless. That's based on the soil samples I have," he said. "How can I safely grow vegetables knowing that it is still coming down in the rainwater and in the air dependent on which way the wind blows?"

As he works to build a greenhouse and build raised garden beds, he's also hoping to collect data to help others figure out what methods help keep crops the safest.

RELATED | Why parts of America are 'certainly in a water crisis' and what can be done about it

Watters is one of a handful of residents who recently received a granular activated carbon system, known as a GAC. Chemours provided the system to Watters as part of their consent order with the state where they agreed to significantly reduce the release of PFAS in the air, water and soil, pay millions of dollars in fines and provide replacement drinking water, including filtration solutions for many residents.

"I know it is clean for the chemicals they can test for, so that gives me more confidence," Watters said. "The science shows that it works."

He explained all the water in his home is now run through the filter and while his family has noticed a difference, they are still skeptical and concerned about long-term solutions.

"They contaminated the property for 30 years. They are only paying for the mediation for 20 years," he said speaking of Chemours requirement to only maintain the GAC systems for two decades.

And not every contaminated well near Chemours qualifies to receive a GAC system. The level of PFAS has to test above a certain level for Chemours to fund the filter. In lieu of a GAC, Chemours has been providing bottled water and reverse osmosis filtration systems to some households.

In a statement to ABC, Chemours said, "We have and continue to implement state-of-the-art technologies, including a thermal oxidizer completed in December 2019 that destroys over 99.99% of PFAS air emissions. In addition, our remediation work includes systems to intercept, collect, and treat legacy PFAS compounds in groundwater and surface water discharges from the site. These systems reduce PFAS compounds reaching the Cape Fear River and follow efforts previously taken by Chemours that reduced HFPO-DA process discharges and emissions by 97%."

The company is also working on an underground barrier wall that will work to capture and treat groundwater and reduce PFAS by at least 99%.

RELATED | NatGeo explores what Americans should know about contaminants in drinking water

Cleaning up the water

But as contamination continues to be uncovered from other sources and the Environmental Protection Agency raises acceptable standards, public water systems are also bearing the burden of cleanup.

Brunswick County, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and Pittsboro have all spent millions of dollars to increase water filtration; a cost that will likely eventually fall back on customers.

After the EPA announced a new drinking water standard in March, the Fayetteville Public Works Commission said it would need to spend $73 million to better treat PFAS and customers will likely see a spike in their utilities.

Cumberland County officials have verbally committed $23 million to run water lines to affected areas and recently received a $15 million federal grant to assist.

"This opens up this big question of why the consumer is paying for the pollution problem that was created by a corporation," said NC State biological science professor Scott Belcher. "And so having that balance of the producer paying rather than the consumer paying for these adverse impacts is an open question and one that deserves some real thought."

Belcher has been studying PFAS' impact on communities, specifically wildlife, for six years. His work has found some connection between high levels of exposure in alligators and changes in the immune system. So far, he said their research can't make a definite connection between exposure to contaminated water and altered immune systems. He said it's continual research like his that is needed to further curb the number of people impacted by contaminated water.

"With the impacts of climate change and everything else, it becomes a really, really, really important issue that we do need to address and it's not going to be our children or grandchildren. It's going to be our generation that is dealing with the consequences that have been laid out," he said.

Moving forward to reduce some of these costs, North Carolina State environmental epidemiologist Dr. Jane Hoppin said more people need to be tested to get a better idea of where the true PFAS contamination hotspots are.

"We as a society need to figure out, where these are coming from?" she said. "The cost to clean it up is expensive. There are lots of sources that we don't understand."

Beyond contamination along the Cape Fear Valley, Hoppin said all customers have a role to play in reducing these chemicals across the nation.

"If we continue to buy PFAS-treated products that means that there'll be continued to be manufactured, which means there'll be continued to be discharged into our environment," she said.

Consumers can make choices like buying waterproof shoes that are PFAS-free, choosing not to donate Teflon pans, etc. This is important because the problem is not isolated.

She and a team of researchers at NC State have been exploring the ramifications of high exposure to PFAS. During her research, she tested her own blood and while she now lives in Raleigh, her results came back with high levels of PFAS.

"I drink the Neuse River. But I also lived in Carrboro for almost 15 years, so I was in the Cape Fear River watershed. And so is that why I'm in the 95th percentile for women for PFAS? I don't know," she said.

But she does know moving forward change will come from everyone playing a part.

"The more people who know about PFAS, the more ability that we will have to make the changes to help reduce the chemicals from going into our environment. And so they will not be in our bodies and our health will be better as a result," Hoppin said.

For a deeper dive into PFAS in North Carolina and the fight to reduce them, tune in on April 22 to ABC's 'Trouble on Tap' special highlighting more voices fighting and impacted in the Cape Fear Valley.