Environmental Factor – July 2022: NIEHS-Supported PFAS Conference Engages Key Stakeholders

Fenton is an expert on how PFAS can affect reproduction and early development. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw/NIEHS)

Man-made substances known as forever chemicals were at the forefront during the 3rd National Meeting on PFAS June 15-17 in Wilmington, NC Scientists, community members and policy makers shared research and, in some cases, emotional stories about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

“We designed the meeting this way because PFAS-affected communities really know what’s going on,” said Suzanne Fenton, Ph.D., event organizer and moderator, National Program NIEHS Division of toxicology. “Involving them was a fabulous way to support affected communities.”

Former NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., spoke about the health effects of PFAS and the need for further research. She received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the nonprofit Clean Cape Fear.

EPA Health Advisory

The meeting made headlines when Radhika Fox, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Deputy Administrator for Water, announced new health advisories for drinking water standards for four PFAS: PFOA, PFOS, PFBS and GenX.

Although the health advisories are not binding, in the cases of PFOA and PFOS, “safe” levels have been reduced to parts per trillion below detectable levels, meaning no amount is now considered safe.

Later this year, Fenton said, the EPA will propose draft maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for PFOA and PFOS. “Once the MCLs are finalized, these values ​​will be regulatory,” she said. “So essentially these health advisories are a ‘Get ReadyAttention.”

Cape Fear Contamination

Jane Hoppin “Students and scientists had the opportunity to connect with people in the community, and seeing that was powerful,” said Hoppin, featured here at a 2018 NIEHS meeting where she discussed the GenX chemical. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw/NIEHS)

Jane Hoppin, Sc.D., who directs the Center for Human Health and the Environment at North Carolina State University (NC State), served on the organizing committee for the event. She described PFAS contamination of the Cape Fear River and watershed – a major focus of the meeting.

In June 2017, the release of GenX and other PFAS directly into the Cape Fear River from a Chemours chemical plant became public knowledge when the Wilmington Star News ran the story of the widespread contamination. Wells miles away – uphill but downwind – had also been contaminated when PFAS emitted into the air fell to earth in rainwater.

“People woke up to find they had been drinking Teflon for 40 years,” Hoppin said.

Cooperation — and painful stories

Hoppin, who also directs the GenX Exposure Study at NC State and is a member of the Center for Environmental and Health Effects of PFAS at the university, praised the comprehensiveness of the three-day event.

“The EPA health advisories are the headline, but the most profound thing for the meeting was how it really brought the community and the scientists to the table,” Hoppin said.

She spoke of the emotional impact of hearing how these chemicals have affected people’s lives. Women who choose not to breastfeed due to PFAS levels in their bodies. Dairy farmers in Maine whose fields are contaminated with PFAS which lead to milk contamination. Firefighters who say they’ve been lied to about the health effects of chemicals in firefighting foam – and slump over colleagues who contracted cancer in their early 30s.

“We also got to hear how grateful people are for what we do,” Hoppin said. “Children sent in drawings thanking us for studying PFAS. It’s quite adorable.

“The EPA announcement was great,” she added, “but that doesn’t change the fact that all of these communities were unknowingly exposed. How can we help them find solutions?”

Listen, learn

Beth Markesino “Things will get done,” Markesino said. “You know the needle is moving.” (Photo courtesy of Beth Markesino)

Beth Markesino has a partial answer. She lives in Wilmington and is the founder of North Carolina Stop GENX in our water. “In 2017 I lost my son Samuel at 24 weeks pregnant when he failed to develop critical organs,” she said. “Later, we learned that our water was contaminated. I created our Facebook group that day, which later became a 501(C)(3).

The group shares information about PFAS in drinking water and sponsors a poster campaign in the Wilmington area. They also help provide low-income and minority residents with water filtration devices.

Markesino is from Michigan, where she worked on the Flint water crisis. “I attended a few of these conferences,” she says. “You don’t think anyone is listening, and then you go to an event like this, and they listen and want to know your opinion. It means a lot to us.”

The event was funded in part by the NIEHS and hosted at Cape Fear Community College by the Center for Environmental and Health Effects of PFAS.

(John Yewell is contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

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