PITTSBORO — An expansive nationwide study has confirmed what Chathamites have long suspected: Pittsboro has some of the worst drinking water in the country.
Last month, Consumer Reports — a non-profit “dedicated to unbiased product testing, investigative journalism (and) consumer-oriented research,” according to its website — concluded a nine-month investigation into water quality across America. The organization partnered with Guardian US, a branch of the British newspaper, to evaluate water quality from 120 locations around the country in a head-to-head comparison.
Almost every sample contained measurable levels of PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a dangerous carcinogen also known to elevate risk of thyroid disease, increase blood cholesterol levels and cause birth defects. But Pittsboro’s PFAS concentration was in a league unto itself.
“I was surprised,” James Rogers, director of food safety testing and research at Consumer Reports, told the News + Record.
“We had a couple other samples that were high, but that was the highest one we had,” he said.
It takes a lot to surprise Rogers, who specializes in pathogenic microbiology and has studied water and food safety for decades. Before joining Consumer Reports four years ago, he worked 18 years as a microbiologist with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. His career also includes stints with the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, and some time as a professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Still, he didn’t expect to find such high PFAS concentrations in his latest study.
“I didn’t know that you guys had those issues,” he said, “and had been dealing with those issues for so long.”
PFAS concentrations, even dangerous amounts, are undetectable without specialized equipment. Their levels are typically measured in parts per trillion. For context, the CR report points out, a single part per trillion is about the size of one sand grain in an Olympic-sized pool. Albeit infinitesimal, just a few parts per trillion can be of severe detriment to the human body when consumed regularly over several years.
Pittsboro’s water sample contained 80.2 ppt, a staggering concentration, Rogers said.
“Well, let’s look at it this way,” he said. “We’re talking parts per trillion, but we can just talk about the number ... Health experts say the level should be all the way down to one. But basically, what we’re seeing in Pittsboro is 80 times the level that health experts say we should be seeing for PFAS in water — 80 times. So that’s really what the issue is.”
The EPA recommends (but does not require) that water contain no more than 70 ppt of PFAS, but that standard is egregious and outmoded, Rogers says. It has endured from a time before much research discovered the seriousness of PFAS ingestion. In 2021, it’s especially frightening given another of PFAS’ grim side effects: they can mute the body’s response to vaccine.
“If you’re exposed to PFAS, your body may not respond high enough to the vaccination to protect against the infection that you’ve actually been vaccinated against,” Rogers said. “Especially now with COVID and people trying to get vaccinated, it’d be sad if you go through the trouble of getting the vaccine ... and you’re still not protected, you still get sick.”
While CR’s investigation may turn nationwide attention to Pittsboro’s plight, town residents and leaders have long known of their water quality quandary. Consumer Reports only corroborated what local scientists have discovered in years-long investigations.
In October, a Duke University research group led by Professor Heather Stapleton, presented its findings from a study born of incidental findings. In 2018, while researching water across the greater Triangle region, Stapleton found 95 ppt of PFAS in Pittsboro’s drinking water and wanted to know more. What she found was worse than expected.
Out of 49 water samples from different Pittsboro water supplies, only a handful had fewer than 100 ppt of PFAS, as the News + Record previously reported. The highest recorded level was 452 ppt.
Such findings and others from similar reports instigated a frenzy among Pittsboro’s leaders and residents to address the problem. Stifling PFAS at its source — upriver manufacturing plants, the effluent of which is laden with PFAS — is likely impossible. That leaves Pittsboro with the burden of filtering its water, an expensive and time-consuming operation.
In recent meetings of the town’s board of commissioners, the group has approved plans for updated water filtration systems at the municipal water plant that will filter as much as 90% of all PFAS from the drinking supply. But it will take at least a year for the system to be completed and operational, and it will cost millions in unexpected costs.
“It’s a problem that we didn’t create,” Pittsboro Town Manager Chris Kennedy previously told the News + Record. “It’s not right for our residents, especially as a small community, to be forced to spend millions of dollars because of others polluting the water we have to drink.”
For a long-term, systemic solution, Rogers says, town residents — and water quality advocates nationwide — must petition leaders at the federal level.
“Water is essential to life,” he said. “... So become activists, become empowered and discover what you can do to try to correct this in your communities.”
Without any government mandate limiting manufacturer introduction of PFAS into bodies of water, the root issue will persist despite local leaders’ best efforts.
“It’s going to take a top-to-bottom approach all the way from the White House and Congress down to the local communities becoming activists to try to fix this problem,” Rogers said. “People have to write to their local leaders, their state leaders, write their congressmen and senators, and petition them to actually do something about this — to support any legislation that will result in clear, enforceable standards so we can start correcting and turning this around.”
Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @dldolder.