PFAS research lauded as activists call for regulatory action.

PFAS research lauded as activists call for regulatory action.

By Will Atwater

If you’ve lived in North Carolina for the past seven years, especially in regions that get water from the Cape Fear River Basin, you’ve likely become familiar with the acronym PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. More than likely, you also know the term can trigger a strong reaction if mentioned in conversation.

“You know, [the conversation], it’s tough in this space because it’s complicated. I try to tell folks there’s more we don’t know than we do about PFAS,” said Jeff Warren, executive director of the North Carolina Collaboratory.

Established in 2016 by the N.C. General Assembly, the Collaboratory is a research body that harnesses the expertise of academics across some of North Carolina’s public and private universities to assist state and local governments in addressing issues facing the state’s residents.

Since 2017, when PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment, were reported found in the Cape Fear River, researchers in North Carolina have raced to determine the compounds’ effects on humans and the environment and develop mitigation solutions.

Last week, a new tool was added to the research arsenal.

Academic researchers from five state universities—Duke, North Carolina State, East Carolina, and UNC Wilmington—will receive mass spectrometers, precise instruments that can identify and measure chemicals at exceedingly low levels, to further their PFAS research. This is possible through a partnership between the North Carolina Collaboratory and Thermo Fisher Scientific, plus a $3 million investment from the N.C. General Assembly.

“Through generous recurring appropriations from the General Assembly, we have

secured forever funding for ‘forever chemicals,’” Warren said. “The next step is continuing to learn about and research these compounds, such that new, innovative solutions can be developed to safeguard communities and ecosystems in our state and across the country. 

”Researchers are continuing to provide robust datasets and analyses to inform policymakers and state agencies to better understand this extremely complicated issue.”

PFAS: What we know

PFAS comprises about 15,000 manufactured compounds that are ubiquitous in society. They are used in various industrial, commercial and consumer products, such as nonstick cookware, makeup, moisture-repellent garments, fast-food wrappers, firefighting protective gear and some firefighting foams.

The compounds accumulate in people’s bodies, and researchers have found evidence that suggests links between PFAS exposure and a list of adverse health impacts, such as weaker antibody responses against infections, elevated cholesterol levels, decreased fetal and infant growth, childhood obesity and kidney cancer in adults.

While the Collaboratory relies on academic expertise to conduct research on a host of topics, the Water Safety Act, a provision included in the 2018 state budget, contributed a little more than $5 million to establish the North Carolina PFAS Testing Network. The network consists of academic researchers from several North Carolina public and private institutions whose sole focus is to better understand the effects of PFAS on public health and the environment. 

What’s more, “by the close of the current budget biennium (June 30, 2025), PFAS funding from the North Carolina General Assembly will total approximately $50 million,” according to information provided on the NC PFAS Network’s website.

Finding one-in-a-billion molecules

These mass spectrometry instruments will allow researchers to detect and measure a wider range of PFAS and other emerging contaminants in water and other environmental samples, the release states. The type of mass spectrometers received by different labs will vary depending on the research being conducted, but the information from each lab will be shared across the network, helping provide answers to unsolved questions about the compounds.

For instance, North Carolina State University chemist Detlef Knappe’s 2016 research revealed the presence of GenX compounds in the Cape Fear River—a class of PFAS produced at the Chemours Fayetteville Works facility that was found to be dumping the chemicals into the nearby Cape Fear. GenX compounds are known to cause cancer in animals. 

Knappe said his research team’s work will be aided by a system that includes a high-resolution mass spectrometer. The team will use the instrument, among other applications, “to determine volatile PFAS levels in ambient air samples collected near fluorochemical facilities” such as the Chemours Fayetteville facility.

The mass spectrometer that Ralph Mead’s lab at UNC Wilmington is receiving will complement the work in Knappe’s lab. 

“We’ll be using the instrument to develop a forensic tracking tool to follow the source and transport of PFAS in the environment,” Mead said. Essentially, the technology will allow Mead and his team to develop molecular fingerprints of different PFAS compounds, such as PFOA, and help track them back to their sources. 

PFAS litigation

The news about the funding for mass spectrometers to support NC PFAS Testing Network research follows a recent Newsline article that identified multiple companies — aside from Chemours — that are releasing PFAS compounds into the Cape Fear basin. 

The news of the latest investment by the N.C. General Assembly for PFAS funding also follows a notice sent in February to the GFL Sampson County Landfill by the Southern Environmental Law Center. The organization intends to sue the landfill on behalf of the Environmental Justice Community Action Network, an environmental advocacy organization based in Sampson County, unless the landfill remedies the situation within 90 days.

The notice charges the landfill with “polluting surface water, groundwater, and nearby drinking water wells with toxic PFAS in a manner that presents an imminent and substantial danger to people’s health and the environment,” according to the release.

“Between 1995 and 2018, the Sampson County Landfill imported millions of pounds of sludge from DuPont and then Chemours,” said Maia Hutt, SELC staff attorney. “The sludge is likely to have contained massive quantities of PFAS, which would explain the shockingly high concentrations of PFAS compounds in the landfill’s leachate.”

The NC PFAS Testing Network’s newly acquired mass spectrometry tools could inform pending litigation brought against Chemours by several parties, such as municipal water utilities and groups of individuals with PFAS-contaminated drinking wells.

PFAS remediation

Under the North Carolina PFAS University Research Alliance, UNC Chapel Hill professors Frank Leibfarth, a chemist, and Orlando Coronell, an engineer, along with their team, are working to develop a substance that would be able to selectively absorb PFAS from water.

A woman wearing a blue lab coat and protective goggles extends her right hand as she touches a device connected to a large machine designed to conduct water sample analyses. To her right, a person in a blue sweatshirt with Carolina written in large white letters is partially in view as he looks down at a book.
A technician is preparing a machine to analyze water samples to determine how effective NC PURE’s resins are at removing PFAS from water compared to GAC filtration and other PFAS remediation systems at Cape Fear Public Utility’s Sweeney Water Treatment Plant. Credit: NC PURE

Supported by $10 million in funding from the North Carolina General Assembly through the Collaboratory, the team has established pilot tests at Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA) in Carrboro, a facility that treats water from surface sources such as lakes and rivers, and Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s (CFPUA) Sweeney Water Treatment Plant in Wilmington, and will also conduct groundwater tests on PFAS-contaminated drinking water wells in the Wilmington area, Leibfarth told NC Health News last September.

OWASA uses powdered activated carbon to manage drinking water taste and odor and to remove some PFAS at its Jones Ferry Road facility, according to the company’s website. CFPUA uses a granular activated carbon system to remove PFAS from the water supply. Granular activated carbon systems are more effective at removing long-chain PFAS from water than short-chain ones.

Leibfarth said the problem is that activated carbon systems don’t discriminate in their approach to water contaminants.

 “There are one thousand to one hundred thousand times more organic, non-fluorinated contaminants in water than there is PFAS. But the challenge of PFAS is that it’s dangerous at such low concentrations,” he said. 

To address the issue, NC Pure has developed fluorinated and non-fluorinated resins. The resins, which work targeting PFAS compounds only, have performed well in early testing, according to Leibfarth.

“We sent our materials to the EPA, up in Cincinnati, and they tested our materials against complex wastewater. And [EPA officials] said, ‘Your materials performed the best.’”

The team is continuing to refine its non-fluorinated resins to ensure that they have other options for treating PFAS other than using one fluorinated compound to treat another.

In a best-case scenario, municipal water treatment facilities like CFPUA, for instance, would pair NC Pure’s new sorbent material with activated carbon filtration, making the system more effective at destroying both long- and short-chain PFAS.

A man dressed in a dark shirt and dark pants points at an image on a slide presentation that he is giving.
UNC Chemistry Professor Frank Leibfarth, co-founder of NC PURE, discusses the novel resins they’re developing to assist water utilities with PFAS removal. Credit: Will Atwater

Still waiting for PFAS regulations

Dana Sargent, executive of Cape Fear River Watch, has a problem with the opening line of the March 27, 2024, news release announcing the Collaboratory’s $3 million investment to advance PFAS research states that the organization “is dedicated to advancing scientific research and policymaking…”

To be clear, Sargent says she applauds the work being done by the team of researchers working with the Collaboratory and the important work they’re doing. But “the crux of the issue here is that there has been no policymaking since 2017, when we found out about this issue,” she said.

Sargent is referring to the discovery of GenX chemicals in the Cape Fear River. 

“There has yet to be one law passed by this North Carolina General Assembly limiting PFAS in our air, water, soil, food or bodies. And, you know, while the funding for research is imperative and helpful — we need all the data we can on what these things do to our bodies and our environment — we need regulation now. And we needed it seven years ago,” she said.

Cape Fear River Watch sued Chemours in 2018 for discharging the chemical GenX into the Cape Fear River. The action led to a consent order among Cape Fear River Watch, Chemours and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

The order requires Chemours to submit monthly reports about emissions of the chemical GenX and related fluorochemicals. The order does not prevent N.C. DEQ from taking any future enforcement action against the company, and nothing in the document releases any other entity from liability.

Last month at its Morrisville facility, the NC Pure staff welcomed Collaboratory executive director Jeff Warren and state Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) to tour the facility and hear updates about the team’s research. Lee, who lives downstream in the Cape Fear Basin, is credited for playing a major role in securing $10 million in nonrecurring funds from the state legislature to support NC Pure’s research. 

Two men are seated at a conference table and are looking straight ahead at someone out of frame, who is giving a presentation.
Jeff Warren, executive director of the NC Collaboratory, and Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) listen as NC PURE staff discuss the resins they’re developing to remove PFAS from water. Credit: Will Atwater

“[NC Pure] has novel sorbents and this is novel funding because we, essentially, saw something that worked at a bench level,” Lee said. 

Regarding the complaints by Sargent and other environmental activists who argue that research is outpacing regulatory movement on PFAS, Lee points to the Water Safety Act.

“Our first Water Safety Act really gave the government and the administration the ability to go after polluters and shut them down,” he said. “Those lawsuits have to be prosecuted by the administration, as opposed to the General Assembly. So whatever tools that they need, we would provide.”

Regarding the consent decree, Lee said, “I wish more had been accomplished in the original litigation and consent decree […] Although I know the utilities have brought [litigation], I feel like more could have and should have been done on a statewide level given the tools that were provided to the administration to move forward with this.”

Meanwhile, the administration’s hands are tied because over the past decade, the legislature has sought to limit the governor and attorney general’s authority and have cut positions at N.C. DEQ.

Sargent said while money is flowing into research, which is essential, the N.C. DEQ has lacked the resources needed to protect the public. 

“They need more funding, and this state refuses to fund the only regulatory agency tasked with protecting human health and the environment in the state of North Carolina, even amid this massive crisis across our whole state.”

However, help may finally be on the way. The biennium budget passed last year included 12 PFAS positions—four each for N.C. DEQ’s Divisions of Water Resources, Waste Management, and Air Quality.

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