General Study Information
CAN I BE A PART OF THIS RESEARCH STUDY?
Currently, we are not recruiting any additional participants for this research study. However, you can be added to our email list, and we can notify you in the event that additional PFAS research studies are seeking participants. By signing up for this email list, you will also receive information about new PFAS related publications our lab has produced, as well as any town hall meetings regarding PFAS in Pittsboro. You can sign up here.
WILL THESE RESults be published?
We do plan on publishing these results in a peer-reviewed journal. However, this process takes time, and a paper will likely not be available until sometime in mid to late 2021. In the meantime, we will continue sharing updates and findings on this website under the “Study Results” tab.
WHAT ARE PFAS?
PFAS is an acronym for per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances. PFAS represent a class of over 4,000 different man-made chemicals which share similar chemical properties, and most notably, multiple fluorine atoms connected to long carbon chains. PFAS are often applied to textiles, resins, cookware, paper and other products to act as either a water or grease/oil repellant. Example applications include upholstery textiles to make them stain repellant, food packaging to make them grease repellant, skillets to make them “non-stick”, and in fire-fighting foams used by fire fighters and military personnel.
PFAS and Health
ARE PFAS HARMFUL?
Some PFAS like PFOS and PFOA have been used for many years and have been associated with negative health outcomes in epidemiology studies. These health outcomes include kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease and higher cholesterol. Although PFOS and PFOA are being phased out of use, newer PFAS chemicals are being used instead. We don’t yet know if these newer PFAS are safer and whether they may be associated with negative health outcomes. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has additional information regarding the health effects of PFAS.
Are there elevated levels of cancer, pre-eclampsia, or adverse birth outcomes in Pittsboro?
We are conducting ongoing research to understand the associations between birth outcomes (such as low birth weight) and PFAS levels in Pittsboro as well as North Carolina (see Aim 3 under “Study Goals” tab). The population of Pittsboro is small relative to other areas, so it’s harder to detect differences. Initial results suggest that babies born in Pittsboro do not have higher rates of low birth weight or premature birth, but Pittsboro has few births to study.
Whenever there are concerns from a community about cancer, health officials start investigating by comparing county cancer rates to North Carolina and national rates. There have been two types of cancer, kidney and testicular, associated with PFAS exposure in the scientific literature. In Chatham County, the rates of new kidney and testicular cancer were similar to or lower than state and national rates. Here is a summary of overall cancer statistics for Chatham County.
PFAS in the Water
IS THE WATER SAFE TO DRINK?
Currently, there are no enforceable, regulatory guidelines for PFAS in drinking water in North Carolina, therefore, the water is considered safe to drink by NC standards. While there are no regulations yet, there are some suggested health advisories for PFAS. The US EPA has established a health advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for two (older or "legacy") types of PFAS known as PFOA and PFOS. North Carolina has also established a health advisory for GenX (a newer type PFAS) of 140 ppt. Other states in the US have set enforceable guidelines for PFAS in drinking water that are lower than the 70 ppt advised by the EPA. For more information on these states’ guidelines, please see our fact sheet here.
PFAS levels in Pittsboro drinking water have been higher than the enforceable levels set by other states (e.g., New Hampshire) on several occasions over the past few years. If you are concerned about PFAS in your drinking water, filters have been shown to reduce PFAS. For more information on filters, please see our fact sheet here..
In addition, levels of 1,4-dioxane in Pittsboro drinking water have been reported above the NC surface water quality standard of 0.35 parts per billion (ppb) on a few occasions; however, there is also no current drinking water standard for 1,4-dioxane.
IS IT SAFE TO USE the water for SHOWERing, Bathing, brushing teeth, WaSHing dishes, etc.?
Exposure to PFAS is believed to occur primarily through consumption (swallowing, drinking, cooking). Dermal absorption of PFAS is thought to be negligible or mostly insignificant. Based on our current understanding of PFAS, showering, bathing, brushing teeth, and washing dishes are not a significant risk for exposure to PFAS.
IS IT SAFE TO SWIM, BOAT, AND FISH IN THE HAW RIVER?
Exposure to PFAS is believed to occur primarily through consumption (swallowing, drinking, cooking). Dermal absorption of PFAS is thought to be negligible or mostly insignificant. Based on our current understanding of PFAS, swimming and boating are not a significant risk for exposure to PFAS.
North Carolina has not issued any advisories or set levels for PFAS in fish. Our lab has not tested any fish from the Haw River for PFAS; however, our collaborators from NC State University are evaluating fish for PFAS, and should have some data available soon. These collaborators (Dr. Scott Belcher, NC State) have found PFAS in tissue from striped bass in the Cape Fear River, downstream of the Haw River. Some states do have consumptions advisories for fish containing PFAS, such as Michigan and New Jersey.
It is worth noting, however, that the Haw River Assembly does not recommend consuming fish from the Haw River due to the statewide advisory of mercury in certain fish species. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services currently has an advisory on eating fish from many of NC’s waterways due to pollution from various contaminants like mercury.
WHERE CAN I GET MY WATER TESTED FOR PFAS?
Several businesses will test your drinking water for PFAS at a cost. We recommend choosing a lab that is EPA-certified. The EPA has created a list of labs that are certified to test drinking water for PFAS using a specific protocol (called EPA Method 537). Some labs will also test for 1,4-dioxane (using EPA Method 522). The list of labs can be found here.
DO LEVELS OF PFAS IN DRINKING WATER CHANGE OVER TIME?
Yes, levels of PFAS in the Haw River change over time, and based on data from 2018 and 2019, levels appear to be highest in the late summer/fall and then decrease in the winter and spring. Part of our research study is seeking to understand what causes this seasonal change in PFAS levels. As a consequence of these changing levels in the Haw River, the levels in finished drinking water also change over time. To read more about this part of our study, click here.
What about water from restaurants, businesses, breweries, and daycare facilities?
Water from these locations may also have PFAS, just like homes. We anticipate the water supply is relatively uniform across Pittsboro. The PFAS levels in drinking water depend on where the water is sourced from, and how the water is filtered. Currently, studies focus on understanding total exposure, so we can’t determine how much of PFAS blood levels are due to drinking water from within homes, versus drinking water from restaurants or businesses.
What are PFAS levels around Jordan Lake, Deep River, Chapel Hill, Apex, etc.?
Some of our collaborators at the NC PFAS Testing Network are testing other locations in North Carolina. Some of that sampling data can be found on their website here. Jordan Lake does have detectable PFAS, but the concentrations are typically lower than the Haw River. One reservoir in Chapel Hill (Cane Creek Reservoir) is impacted by PFAS from agricultural field runoff where biosolids are applied. However, Chapel Hill’s University Lake reservoir is not impacted by PFAS, and powder activated carbon (PAC) is used to remove PFAS from the finished drinking water.
What are PFAS levels downstream of Pittsboro?
Researchers at North Carolina State University have been studying PFAS levels in the lower Cape Fear River basin (including Fayetteville and Wilmington, NC) as part of the GenX Exposure Study. For locations downstream of Pittsboro, data suggests there are few PFAS sources between Pittsboro and the Chemours’ Fayetteville Works plant.
What about water from wells or aquifers?
The PFAS levels in wells differ depending on location. We have tested wells around Durham and in Durham County, and these wells had very low levels of PFAS. In contrast, private wells around the Chemours facility had higher levels of PFAS. Private wells and aquifers that are near PFAS-impacted sites could potentially have PFAS contamination, but there can be a lot of variability.
What about water distributors and Resellers who buy water from Pittsboro?
Distributors and resellers in Pittsboro are all sourcing water from the same place, the Haw River. Therefore, the PFAS levels would be expected to be the same throughout. To our knowledge, the distributors do not be doing anything to add or remove PFAS to the water, relative to Pittsboro Town water sourced directly from the drinking water treatment plant.
What is the source of PFAS to waste water treatment plants?
The source of PFAS to the waste water treatment plants likely arises from two different locations. One source could be residential waste water, where PFAS are being released from things like washing machine water. But a second, more likely source are industries that use PFAS and have permits to discharge their waste to the waste water treatment plants.
PFAS in the Blood
What does my blood level mean for my health and potential disease?
While scientific research on newer PFAS chemicals is growing, the PFAS blood results from our study cannot provide information on whether a current health problem is related to your PFAS levels. At this time, these results cannot tell you whether you will have a negative health effect now or later in life.
Will my blood levels for PFAS ever decrease?
By reducing exposure, levels of PFAS should decrease over time in your body. However, some PFAS have long half-lives and take years to be eliminated from the body. For those PFAS (e.g. PFOA, PFOS and PFHxS), it may take years for blood levels to decrease even if you are drinking uncontaminated water.
WHERE CAN I GET MY Blood TESTED FOR PFAS?
Like drinking water, some commercial companies will test your blood for PFAS at a cost. However, there is no EPA method for measuring PFAS in blood, and different labs may use different methods. Eurofins offers blood testing, and the Minnesota Department of Health lists two other private laboratories that may test your blood. We do not know all labs that may currently test blood, and we do not recommend specific labs. If you decide to have your blood tested, we recommend doing research on your lab to understand which PFAS chemicals will be measured, and what the limit of detection will be.
Other PFAS Exposure
HOW ELSE AM I EXPOSED TO PFAS?
PFAS exposure is believed to occur primarily by diet (drinking water and some food). PFAS are used in food packaging and fast food containers, and it’s possible that some transfer of PFAS from the packaging to the food can occur. For example, PFAS applied to microwave popcorn bags (to make the paper bag grease-repellent) have been shown to transfer to food. Some produce, meats and dairy products can also contain low levels of PFAS that are a result of uptake from the ambient environment.
PFAS exposure via dermal absorption (skin) and inhalation (breathing) are believed to be small, though more research is being done to understand exposure through other pathways.
For additional information on PFAS in food packaging, see articles below:
- “PFAS in Food Packaging: A Hot, Greasy Exposure“
- “Take Out Toxics”
- “Harmful PFAS Only Come From Old Food Packaging, Right? Wrong!”
Have PFAS been found in food?
It is possible that produce can absorb PFAS if grown in or near PFAS-impacted soils or grown in fields that use irrigation water and biosolids contaminated with PFAS. Nationwide studies on PFAS in food have found that the levels are generally low. PFAS can also be found in food packaging (see question immediately above).
Do teflon and non-stick pans have PFAS?
Our understanding is that non-stick pans are coated with a polymer that contains PFAS. The manufacturing processes to make these pans also uses PFAS.
Are industries shifting to different (newer types) PFAS?
Yes, different PFAS are being used in some industries, instead of the older (legacy) PFAS such as PFOA and PFOS. Many industries are committed to removing PFOA and PFOS from their products and are looking for more environmentally friendlier options. For example, many industries are trying to shift from longer/bigger PFAS chains to smaller/shorter PFAS chains that should be less likely to persist and accumulate in people. This likely explains why, in the Haw River, PFOA levels are declining over time while PFHxA levels appear to be increasing.
Are PFAS in the air?
For the PFAS that we measured in this study, usually no, they are not detected or found in high concentrations in the air. Most of the PFAS we measured in water and blood are not very volatile and mostly stay in the surface water or groundwater. For other PFAS, such as GenX, there is some limited atmospheric transport, but it’s complicated due to the potential for PFAS to sorb to particles in the air and transform into different PFAS chemicals.
What you can do
WHAT TYPE OF HOME WATER FILTERS WORK BEST FOR REMOVING PFAS?
Our laboratory conducted a study to evaluate how effective home water filters were in removing PFAS. A link to a press release can be found here. Our study found that there is a wide variability in the performance of filters, but regardless of performance, a well-maintained filter can reduce one’s overall exposure to PFAS in drinking water. A summary discussing the effectiveness of different types of filters can be found here. A link to the complete publication can be found here (note that the appendix/supporting information provides a table that lists all water filters tested).
WHERE CAN I FIND PRODUCTS THAT ARE PFAS FREE?
This website has a list of PFAS-free products such as apparel, furniture, personal care products, cookware, and textiles, as well as information about up-and-coming PFAS research.
What are local and federal governments doing about PFAS?
The US EPA is taking steps to develop a drinking water Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) which would be an enforceable drinking water standard. You can read more about the EPAs actions on PFAS and plans for developing the MCLs here.
The Town of Pittsboro is having ongoing discussions regarding options for improving the quality of the drinking water. These discussions include finding an alternative water source, and upgrading the current drinking water treatment plant to help remove PFAS and other contaminants. For more information, we encourage you to reach out to the Pittsboro Water Quality Task Force, and you can read more about their recommendation here.
What are the options for removing PFAS at the water utility scale? can water treatment plants remove PFAS better than Home Systems?
The answer to this question is very complicated and depends on a number of factors. We recommend that individuals consider reading more about water utility scale treatment for PFAS at this website developed by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority which is grappling with a similar problem.
What can we do to push NCDEQ to set regulations for PFAS and other emerging contaminants?
The Southern Environmental Law Center and the City of Burlington are working to address PFAS being released from the East Burlington wastewater treatment plant. We hope that continued research and collaborative efforts can help us to identify other sources of PFAS to the Haw River. In addition, we recommend that you reach out to your state representatives and encourage them to become more informed on the issues and commit to helping improve the water quality of the Haw River.
Why do some states have regulations for PFAS and others do not?
Some states have set limits for PFAS in water based on their state’s interests and policies, and some states are currently developing regulations.