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Pollution

GenX-related fluoroether taints water in wells near West Virginia Chemours plant

Granulated activated carbon filters remove HFPO-DA, U.S. EPA says

by Cheryl Hogue
April 24, 2018

 

Credit: Snoopywv/Wikimedia
The Washington Works plant outside Parkersburg, W.Va., formerly used PFOA as a polymerization aid and now uses GenX, which hydrolyzes to HFPO-DA.
Credit: Snoopywv/Wikimedia
The Washington Works plant outside Parkersburg, W.Va., formerly used PFOA as a polymerization aid and now uses GenX, which hydrolyzes to HFPO-DA.
Credit: Snoopywv/Wikimedia
The Washington Works plant outside Parkersburg, W.Va., formerly used PFOA as a polymerization aid and now uses GenX, which hydrolyzes to HFPO-DA.

A fluoroether from a Chemours plant near Petersburg, W.Va., contaminates public and private well water in Ohio and West Virginia, U.S. EPA announced on April 23.

This marks the first time that the industrial chemical hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid (HFPO-DA) has been found in U.S. water outside of North Carolina. In that state, the substance contaminates the Cape Fear River downstream of a Chemours plant near Fayetteville that makes fluoroethers. HFPO-DA has also been found in that river’s sediments, well water up to 11 km from the plant, and rainwater.

Tests of well water in West Virginia and Ohio found HFPO-DA at levels ranging from 16 to 81 parts per trillion in untreated drinking water from nine of 14 wells that Chemours sampled earlier this year at EPA’s behest.

Drinking water drawn from these wells is run through granulated activated carbon filters to strip out another industrial compound, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). The filters, installed between August 2011 and February of this year, apparently also remove HFPO-DA, the water tests suggest. After filtering, the amount of HFPO-DA dropped to less than 10 ppt, EPA says.

For decades, the West Virginia facility, which DuPont owned before it spun off Chemours in 2015, discharged PFOA into the Ohio River and placed PFOA-containing waste in dumps. The facility also emitted the perfluorocarbon to air, where it blew over the river and deposited on Ohio land. From there, it was carried to aquifers by water percolating through the soil. DuPont installed the granulated activated carbon drinking water filters on the wells early this century. In 2017, DuPont and Chemours together agreed to pay $670 million to settle 3,550 lawsuits in West Virginia and Ohio from residents who say their health was harmed by drinking PFOA-tainted water. The International Agency for Research on Cancer says PFOA is possibly carcinogenic to humans.

DuPont also formerly owned the North Carolina plant, now the property of Chemours. That facility produces GenX, the ammonium salt of HFPO-DA. GenX is an industrial surfactant used as a polymerization aid to manufacture fluoropolymers such as polytetrafluoroethylene, which is made at Chemours’s West Virginia facility. DuPont introduced GenX about eight years ago as a “sustainable replacement” for PFOA. The health risks from drinking HFPO-DA are unclear, but some studies suggest it could be more toxic than PFOA.

Chemours did not respond to C&EN’s requests for comment on this or other articles this year about fluoroether pollution.

EPA says it is working closely with regulators in West Virginia and Ohio on the well-water contamination.

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Comments
Theodore L. Brown (April 25, 2018 5:28 PM)
After all the examples of industrial chemicals showing up with one or another form of toxicity to humans, animals or other parts of the environment, it seems that claiming that a new product proposed for widespread use is "safe" can be simply disregarded at face value. Yet the burden of demonstrating that industrial chemicals are not harmful falls not on those who are putting them out into the environment, but on society at large. This seems wrong, doesn't it? I can understand that those using chemicals that find their way into the environment believe that they're not going to be spreaders of toxins. The chemicals have been subject to some testing, found not to be acutely toxic in lab animal testing, etc. But not "acute" toxicity nor anything near that is what we should be looking for. Nor can we be satisfied that a few months of exposure at low doses wlll be enough to test whether there is some long-term toxicity.
On the other hand, if we set the bar for non-toxicity too high, we inhibit the entry of products that might have social value. Perhaps what we need is a system in which companies do their best, in company with other stakeholders, to ensure that the product is not harmful, but then accounts for the possibility that there might be unforeseen negative effects. But given that commercial enterprises come and go, merge and die, etc we can't just assume that today's companies will take care of covering medical or other kinds of costs associated with a product's negative effects. What sort of insurance can a company provide? We need modeling work, based on historical experience to tell us what the odds are that there will be harmful outcomes from a product's use, and that the company producing the material will be the one that pays the fiddler, as it were. That could mean establishing trust funds, potentially big ones, to cover those potential costs, money being added to the trust fund as the product's usage increases, and leaving those funds in place for some extended period of time. Would that inhibit economic growth? In the short run it very well might, but if we consider the total societal costs, those borne by victims of toxic products and the fines that the companies eventually are made to pay, normally nowhere near the economic damage caused, and not at all in line with the human tragedies that have often ensued, the total economic and social costs would be likely to be much smaller in the long run if those potential costs were recognized up front.
Capitalism has its strengths, but as Marx and others saw, it creates inequality and injustice merely out of the mindset of short term profit and absence of concern for the public weal that seems inherent in its workings. Chemicals of all kinds, increasingly including pharmaceuticals and agricultural chemicals, we may always have with us. We just have to figure out how to keep them from poisoning our lives in the many ways we've come to know, and possibly in new ways in the future.

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