PFAS levels and protections in North Carolina school systems

After the Wilmington Star-News broke the story about the class of PFAS commonly known as GenX chemicals being found in the Cape Fear River in 2017, several environmental organizations began lobbying the North Carolina General Assembly to address the state's PFAS pollution issues.

To identify needs and the funding required to effectively respond, the North Carolina Coastal Federation (NCCF), a nonprofit with headquarters in Newport, began meeting with environmental engineering professors Detlef Knappe of North Carolina State University, Lee Ferguson of Duke University, and a few of the other researchers that were actively studying PFAS contamination in the state.

In late August 2017, House Speaker Tim Moore (R) appointed the House Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality and named state Rep. Ted Davis (R) of Wilmington its chair. The NCCF had been engaging the General Assembly about the issue as well, and Davis invited Ferguson and the NCCF to give a presentation on emerging compounds at the committee's first meeting on Sept. 28, 2017.

That meeting and the ones that followed sparked additional conversation among legislators on how to properly respond. By 2018, the researchers and the General Assembly had engaged the NC Policy Collaboratory on how the research capacity and expertise of the University of North Carolina system and other universities within the state could help address the issue. The General Assembly established the NC Policy Collaboratory in the summer of 2016 to facilitate research related to natural resource management and public health issues, and to help disseminate the resulting information for practical use by state and local governments. 

As part of the 2018-2019 state budget, the General Assembly allocated approximately $5 million to the Collaboratory to address public concerns about PFAS contamination in North Carolina and its effects on humans, wildlife, and the environment. Session Law 2018-5 laid out the specific research the Collaboratory was to carry out, and the Collaboratory matched the $5 million investment with an additional $2 million in other discretionary funds appropriated by the legislature. In order to complete the task, the Collaboratory assembled the NC PFAS Testing Network, which is a coalition of over 100 different team members led by principal researchers from N.C. State, Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Wilmington, UNC-Charlotte, East Carolina University, and N.C. Agricultural and Technical State University.

Working under Ferguson and Knappe, the Network's water sampling and analysis team gathered multiple rounds of samples from 376 county and municipal drinking water sources across the state over the course of 2018 and 2019, collecting them at the intake of the specific water treatment facility in question. Their analysis helped showcase the importance of taking multiple samples from a single source because of a phenomenon known as "temporal variability;" whether due to changes in precipitation and streamflow, or fluctuating amounts of PFAS discharged by upstream polluters, PFAS levels in drinking water can vary dramatically over time.

In the Haw River, for example, the first round of samples showed the total PFAS concentration was around 54 parts per trillion. But levels in the second round of sampling were over 800 ppt.

Of the 376 water sources tested in the first round, 20 had a summed concentration of PFOA and PFOS at or above the Environmental Protection Agency's previous health advisory limit of 70 ppt. And of the 10 sources with the highest total PFAS concentrations in that round, nine were from the Cape Fear River Basin.

In addition to mandating a survey of PFAS concentrations in public water systems across the state, Session Law 2018-5 required the Testing Network to examine other health and environmental impacts of different PFAS, including the airborne concentrations of gaseous and particulate PFAS, the performance of various PFAS-removing technologies, and the risk susceptibility of private wells.

Out of the 78 groundwater samples collected beneath streams by the Network's Private Well Risk Modeling Team, all were contaminated with PFAS. The team found PFAS concentrations were generally higher in younger groundwater, but even the oldest groundwater sampled at 29 years old contained over 300 ppt of total PFAS.

The team in charge of the analysis of air emissions and atmospheric deposition found that even though legacy PFAS like PFOA and PFOS had been phased out of production, they were still present in both wet and dry deposition. "Wet deposition" refers to the process in which gases and particulate matter mix with water in the atmosphere and return to Earth through rain, snow, or fog, and "dry deposition" refers to when these gases and particulate matter fall directly to Earth.

In their recommendations presented to the General Assembly following the conclusion of the study, each of the Testing Network's teams argued there was a need for continued research, and several identified additional areas of study they thought should be explored. Since then, funding from the both the Collaboratory and non-state sources has allowed the Testing Network's researchers to pursue various PFAS-related research, and an additional $14 million was included in the 2021-2022 state budget for the Collaboratory to continue facilitating this work.