If your water’s contaminated, here’s what you need to know


PITTSBORO — Water contamination issues have for years been the exigent asterisk beside glowing reports of Pittsboro’s budding reputation.

A month ago, residents’ frustration was evoked anew when the town was blindsided by a new “slug” of upstream pollution. Dangerous concentrations of 1,4-Dioxane were discharged into the Haw River — the source of Pittsboro’s drinking water — from a Greensboro water treatment plant. And it’s not the first time upstream cities have contaminated downstream supplies with a suspected carcinogen.

In 2018, a research team led by Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment Professor Heather Stapleton discovered disconcerting levels of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in the town’s tap water — well in excess of the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended limit. Since then, scientists have consistently identified alarming concentrations of the chemical family in Pittsboro’s water.

“There are multiple known sources of contamination stemming from within the municipalities of Reidsville, Burlington and Greensboro,” a report from the Pittsboro Water Quality Task Force said in October.

In April, a nationwide study by Consumer Reports found Pittsboro had higher concentrations of PFAS in its water compared to any other sample site in the country — and by a lot. Pittsboro’s water sample contained 80.2 parts per trillion of PFAS, a staggering figure. Albeit infinitesimal, just a few parts per trillion can be of detriment to the human body when consumed regularly over several years.

But the problem is unlikely to change without governmental intervention. Both PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane are prolific in factory effluent and commonly-used products.

But just how dangerous are these chemical really?

What they’re saying

• “There have been a number of studies investigating health effects from exposure to PFAS,” Stapleton said in a presentation of her team’s findings last year, “and we know based on these studies — laboratory studies and human epidemiological studies — that higher exposure to PFAS is associated with risks for thyroid disease, increased blood cholesterol levels, reduction in our bodies’ abilities to fight off viruses, reduction in our response to vaccines — so, implicating our immune systems — and implications for reproduction and birth outcomes.”

• “1,4-Dioxane is a likely human carcinogen ...” the EPA reports. “The physical and chemical properties and behavior of 1,4-dioxane create challenges for its characterization and treatment. It is highly mobile and does not readily biodegrade in the environment.”

Staying safe

There’s much to be said about PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane water contamination, as the News + Record has often reported for the past several years. But here are the most important facts you must know to preserve your health:

Only ingestion of contaminated water is dangerous: That is to say, drinking 1,4-Dioxane and PFAS contaminated water is dangerous. But other exposure to the chemicals is unlikely to hurt you.

Health officials say it’s unlikely enough 1,4-dioxane or PFAS can be obsorbed into your body through bathing, washing dishes or other household water use to be of major concern.

There are home solutions: some home water purifiers protect against 1,4-Dioxane and PFAS, although they come with hefty up-front costs. Of the two chemicals, PFAS is a bit easier to remove. Both reverse osmosis filters and granular activated coal systems will do the trick. For 1,4-Dioxane, you must select reverse osmosis.

A less expensive option in the short-term is to sidestep the water issue entirely by drinking only bottled water.

Pittsboro is the only town in Chatham that draws its drinking supply from the Haw River. Siler City, Cary and the county’s other areas use different bodies of water such as the Rocky River and Jordan Lake. Those water sources are not impervious to pollution, but they are not riddled with resilient contaminants like the Haw.

Long-term solutions

Town staff and elected officials are trying to resolve Pittsboro’s water crisis, but it’s slow going.

Under consultation from CDM Smith — an engineering and construction company, which provides water solutions for government and private clients — the board of commissioners adopted a plan in February for tiered installation of various treatment methods starting with a “fast-track” option that should be operational in less than a year.

The filtration method, known as granular activated coal (GAC), would filter approximately 90% of all PFAS from a drinking supply of at least one million gallons per day (mgd) — more than enough for the town’s water demands on all but the hottest days of the year.

The project will cost $2.5 million to $3 million.

But with 1,4-Dioxane having resurfaced in the last month, after more than a year-long absence, the town must accelerate its plan to add a reverse osmosis filtration system, Town Manager Chris Kennedy said in a special meeting of the board of commissioners last week (see coverage in this edition). The board has plans to host similar special meetings over coming months dedicated to resolution of the town’s water woes and potential action against upstream polluters.

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.


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