Don’t drink the water. That’s something you’d expect to hear when you travel to a developing country. But that’s what people are saying in Wilmington, a historic beach, tourist and retiree destination and the eighth-largest city in this state. It also happens to be one of my favorite places to go when I need a reprieve from the heat and humidity of central North Carolina. With its charming historic riverfront, shops, delicious restaurants, parks, water sports and beautiful beaches, it’s a great place to relax and unwind. The last thing one should have to worry about is the safety of the local drinking water.
Over the past couple of months, Wilmington residents have learned that DuPont and its spinoff company Chemours have been dumping unregulated chemicals into the Cape Fear River for decades and only recently stopped at the request of the governor. The result: Disturbing levels of chemicals like 1,4-dioxane, GenX and PFOA have been found in the drinking water of residents in Wilmington, Brunswick and the surrounding area.
These types of of chemicals, called fluorinated compounds, have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease and obesity. GenX and other fluorinated compounds are used in the making of Teflon, Scotchgard and other stain-resistant and water-repellant products. They are designed so that they are water- and oil-repellant, which means that they are extremely difficult to treat in water-treatment plants before they hit our taps.
While GenX has received a lot of the attention, the chemical 1,4-dioxane – which is much more well-studied – has been found in some places to be in excess of 35 parts per billion, a level at which, when consumed regularly over the course of a lifetime, cancer risk becomes two orders of magnitude higher than that at generally acceptable levels. Many Wilmington residents have been drinking this water their whole lives. Now they must worry about the risks to their and their children’s health.
Wilmington has asked the EPA to start looking into GenX and investigating the safety of its water. But with asbestos denier Scott Pruitt and chemical industry representative Nancy Beck overseeing EPA’s program in charge of regulating these chemicals, I don’t have much faith in their investigation. Now, the Trump Administration has nominated Michael Dourson to lead the entire toxics program at the EPA. Will Mr. Dourson provide hope for Wilmington?
A look at his background also leaves me skeptical. In 2002, DuPont hand-picked Dourson’s firm Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA) to advise West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality on setting health levels for PFOA, one of the same chemicals now found in Wilmington’s water. His firm came up with a level that was thousands of times less protective than a later EPA assessment. 1,4-dioxane is currently under review by the very office that Mr. Dourson has been nominated to lead. Yet he also published research on that chemical paid for entirely by PPG, a company responsible for discharging this chemical and contaminating Ohio’s waterways.
Saturday, I went to a Rally for Clean Water in Wilmington to talk with residents about their concerns. They want what we all want – to know that when they open up the tap, they can drink the water without worrying about toxic chemicals. And they deserve better: corporate polluters that are held accountable for egregious pollution and government officials who will protect their health and safety at the local and the national level.
Ansje Miller resides in Hillsborough and is the director of Policy and Partnerships for the Center for Environmental Health.