A better evil? Evaluating the risk of GenX pollution in Cincinnati

'Our water is extremely safe'
Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-30 23:31:38-04

CINCINNATI — Bonnie Jean Feldkamp feeds her garden from rain barrels and her family from the Big Berkey. It’s a $400 water filter that removes toxins from tap water.

“All you do is put the water in the top and there’s carbon filters,” said Feldkamp, a Fort Thomas, Kentucky-based freelance writer whose past research on water pollution prodded her into action. “The reviews show that it does take the PFAS out of there and a lot of the heavy metals as well as biological pathogens that you have to worry about.”

PFAS is an acronym for a widely used group of fluorocarbons that have been linked to cancer and thyroid disease. Faced with increasing liability, chemical giant DuPont replaced one of its PFAS compounds in 2009 with a new product called GenX. It was billed as less harmful to humans because it doesn’t accumulate in the body.

But researchers from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences recently linked GenX to problems in pregnancy and in the brain. And water utilities are learning that the carbon filtration systems they’ve used for years to remove PFAS compounds don’t work as well on GenX.

“Feels like it’s a new evil, not a better evil,” Feldkamp said. “If history has shown us anything, we won’t know that answer until my children are grown and we see what it’s done to them after a lifetime.”

The I-Team has been investigating the risk of GenX contamination in our region by reviewing medical research and water-quality reports that show how much of the compound finds its way into our drinking water. While GenX concentrations here are lower than other cities, it’s difficult to say whether those concentrations are safe because research is evolving on these unregulated chemicals.

“It’s almost like we’re starting back over again,” said Northern Kentucky attorney Rob Bilott. He won a $671 million settlement from DuPont with a lawsuit that established a probable link between cancer and the PFAS compound PFOA. The case made the Taft Law partner famous. His story is depicted in the movie, “Dark Waters.” DuPont subsequently split into three companies, including Chemours Co., which makes GenX.

RELATED: Bilott pursues class-action lawsuit over 'forever chemicals'

Taft Law partner Rob Bilott is pursuing more than a dozen lawsuits over 'forever chemicals.'

“What you have is DuPont and Chemours saying there’s no evidence that it causes any harm to humans at these levels because they haven’t made any information available or they haven’t done the studies,” Bilott said. “What we do know is the very first cancer study that came out on GenX showed it caused the exact same three cancer tumors in rats that PFOA did. But nobody has done any human studies yet.”

Chemours did not respond to the I-Team’s request for an interview, but in testimony to Congress last September the company maintained GenX is safe in drinking water at levels of up to 70,000 parts per trillion. That’s roughly the equivalent of three fourths of a cup in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

“While continuing to evaluate the scientific data on GenX, we at Chemours are taking significant actions to reduce human exposure to GenX,” testified Paul Kirsch, president of Chemours fluoroproducts division.

How much GenX is here?

Cincinnati’s exposure to GenX happens mostly at the faucet. It arrives there via the Ohio River from Washington Works, a Chemours plant near Parkersburg, West Va. Kirsch told Congress that the plant has installed air and water emission controls that keep 99 percent of GenX from escaping. But the Greater Cincinnati Water Works found the chemical in river water last fall at levels of 37 parts per trillion.

Tests conducted since last June show four local treatment plants had detectable levels of GenX in their finished water. The highest concentration of 11.9 parts per trillion was recorded last summer at a Fort Thomas plant that treats Ohio River water for customers of the Northern Kentucky Water District.

“We rely on the state and federal agencies to provide guidance,” wrote Amy Kramer, the district’s vice president of engineering, production and distribution, in a response to the I-Team’s questions. “While a health advisory has not been set for GenX … Kentucky’s Department for Environmental Protection determined that there were no evident PFAS health concerns.”

Another plant that draws its water from the Ohio River had the second-highest GenX concentration in the region. Greater Cincinnati Water Works detected 6.6 parts per trillion at the Richard Miller treatment plant on Kellogg Avenue in December. Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky both use carbon filtration systems to remove PFAS chemicals but that method isn’t as effective for GenX.

“Looking at the current guidelines that are out there we feel our water is extremely safe,” said Jeff Swertfeger, Cincinnati’s superintendent of water quality. “Even though we’d prefer (PFAS compounds) not to be there, the trace levels we occasionally detect we feel very comfortable with those. It’s a concern we’re going to watch, we’re going to work on but we’re not going to panic about it.”

What's in your water

How much GenX is too much?

GenX first emerged as a health concern in North Carolina, where regulators documented levels of PFAS contamination at 990,000 parts per trillion in the Cape Fear River downstream from a Chemours plant in Fayetteville. That 2015 discovery wasn’t made public until 2017. It led to a 2019 consent decree with the state’s Department of Environmental Quality and $100 million in new investments by Chemours to reduce GenX and other PFAS emissions.

It also made an activist out of Emily Donovan, co-founder of a grass roots group called Clean Cape Fear.

“We’ve altered things significantly,” Donovan said. “My children take re-usable water bottles to school. We’ve installed filtration methods in our home. We don’t drink directly from the tap anymore.”

Donovan has lobbied for state, local and national reforms to regulate and remove from the environment not only GenX but the entire family of "forever chemicals" to which it belongs.

“We need to address the long-term public health crisis of these chemicals,” Donovan said. “Not only are they in our drinking water but they’re in our food supply. Americans have baseline levels detected in their blood. These compounds don’t belong in our blood.”

Clean Cape Fear can point to some tangible signs of success.

The water utility where Donovan lives in Brunswick County is building a $137 million treatment plant that uses reverse osmosis to remove GenX and other PFAS chemicals. Swertfeger said that approach might remove more GenX than the carbon filtration system Cincinnati currently uses. But it would be cost prohibitive for Cincinnati because its treatment capacity is about five times bigger than the planned Brunswick County plant.

“It would be about a $5 billion plant for us if we wanted to use reverse osmosis," Swertfeger said.

The state of North Carolina adopted one of the nation’s most restrictive standards on GenX. It’s a "health goal” of 140 parts per trillion. That’s about 1.5 teaspoons in an Olympic pool. But the state doesn’t exactly endorse that level as safe.

“It’s the concentration of GenX at which no adverse non‐cancer health effects would be anticipated in the most sensitive population over an entire lifetime of exposure,” said the state report.

Chemours told Congress in September that it achieved a 95 percent reduction in GenX levels in the Cape Fear River. But Brunswick County still ranked number one in the nation in PFAS pollution, according to a tap water study released in January by Environmental Working Group. The water-quality advocacy group said a drinking water sample collected last October in Leland, North Carolina, contained 13 different PFAS compounds that added up to 185.9 parts per trillion. That included a GenX concentration of 31 ppt.

EWG advocates a goal of less than one part per trillion for all PFAS compounds, including GenX. That’s the equivalent of one drop spread across 20 Olympic pools. EWG Senior Scientist David Andrews said the PFAS family includes thousands of fluorocarbons that have not been studied by health researchers. So, he argues an abundance of caution is warranted.

“New studies are showing that other chemicals in the family can also lead to cancer,” Andrews said. “There are a number of studies showing that these chemicals can impact our immune system.”

How dangerous is GenX?

The U.S. EPA declared GenX to be “less toxic” than PFOA, the compound it replaced, in a November 2018 toxicity report. The EPA stressed its analysis was based solely on health effects from GenX exposure, not the potential cumulative effects of GenX mixed with other chemicals.

“Animal studies have shown health effects in the kidney, blood, immune system, developing fetus and especially in the liver following oral exposure,” said the report. “The data are suggestive of cancer.”

Donovan said the report demonstrates how little is known about GenX.

“Toxicity is a subjective term,” she said. “I mean, if you’re chronically drinking 11 parts per trillion every day of GenX for your whole entire life, what are the toxicological effects of that? And where are the studies that can give you that information? They’re not out there right now.”

The National Institute of Environmental Health Services has published two recent studies into how GenX might impact reproductive health and brain activity.

One study, published in February, linked GenX to some of the same problems that PFOA caused in pregnant mice, including “placental abnormalities” and “adverse pathological features” in the liver.

Another study in March documented how GenX interferes with the “blood brain barrier” that uses "transport proteins" to let nutrients from the bloodstream into the brain but keep harmful toxins out.

“They’re kind of like bouncers at the bar,” said Ronald Cannon, a research scientist at NIEHS and co-author of the study. “Any time a bad actor tries to get into the brain, they’re picked up and pushed right back into the blood.”

Cannon said GenX interfered with the performance of transport proteins in the brains of laboratory rats, even at relatively low levels. In fact, Cannon said, North Carolina’s provisional health goal is four times higher than the “lowest effect level” of GenX doses that adversely impacted the brains of male rats.

“I don’t like to jump into the fray and get political,” Cannon said. “But that’s a factual statement and that’s probably the strongest sentence in our work.”

Back in Fort Thomas, Bonnie Feldkamp was not aware of the research into GenX or even the fact that it’s now showing up in Northern Kentucky’s drinking water.

But she is happy she bought a carbon filtration system and hopes to learn more about reverse osmosis.

“The cool thing about the system I bought is that you can add a special filter for fluoride,” she said. “I would really hope our technology would somehow create an add-on filter for (removing GenX). And then, absolutely, I would invest in that.”

Feldkamp is extra wary of industrial pollutants because her son, Ezra Cisneros, was diagnosed with lead poisoning three years ago, during his one-year well check. They were living in Louisville at the time and discovered the problem early enough to avoid developmental delays and undergo successful treatment for anemia. Feldkamp has auto-immune disease and has lost friends and family to cancer.

“You can’t sell me on a safer chemical,” Feldkamp said. “I’ve got 44 years invested in my life. I’m kind of attached to it. So, I’ll probably do what I can to keep it.”

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