Report: Brunswick County tops national list for PFAS contamination

BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NC (WWAY) — Drinking water in part of Brunswick County is considered the most toxic in the United States, according to new testing. Wilmington is ranked number 5.

The testing was done by the Environmental Working Group and Clean Cape Fear.

PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, like GenX, are considered toxic chemicals.

The study tested water samples from 44 places in 31 cities. Two places in the Cape Fear region are among the top five for highest levels of PFAS.

Highest concentration of the toxic chemicals was found in a sample collected at Belville Elementary School. The sample tested at 185.9 parts per trillion, or ppt.

Brunswick County’s sample falls below the EPA health advisory level of 70 ppt.

Wilmington tested at 50.5 ppt.

Mayor Bill Saffo says the report is scary.

“We know that there are other PFAS out there,” Saffo said. “We don’t know where they’re coming from. We don’t even know what they do to the human body.”

Saffo says they need to put more pressure on government officials to provide more resources for monitoring and regulations for companies putting toxins in the water.

“You know, this didn’t just happen overnight,” he said. “Getting the monitoring of the Cape Fear on a regular basis, trying to identify where these things are coming from and trying to go after the polluters that are putting this into our water system.”

The samples were collected from May to December 2019 and analyzed by an independent laboratory for 30 different PFAS chemicals.

“I’m devastated to see my children’s school at the top of this nationwide study,” said Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear. “Belville is the largest elementary school in southeastern North Carolina. This is wrong. I’m so sad. My PTO should be asking for cookie and cupcake donations–but instead parents are regularly asked to donate gallons of bottled water. America is better than this. We need to start acting that way.”

While the study found PFASs are present in rainwater and all major US water supplies, the high levels in the area are likely due to the legacy of the Chemours facility near Fayetteville discharging these chemicals into the Cape Fear River.

Read the complete study here.

Following the release of the study, Brunswick County Schools issued this statement:

“The health and safety of students and staff are always the top priority at all Brunswick County Schools.  Brunswick County Government tests water quality on a weekly basis and has not issued an advisory for drinking water in our area.  Until Brunswick County Government officials tell us the water is not safe to consume, BCS will operate as normal.  However, we are providing the option of bottled water for students/staff on-site to help ease minds regarding the recent report from EWG.  We continue to work with Brunswick County Government to make sure health and safety are at the forefront in the district and should there ever be any action necessary, we will act accordingly to ensure students and staff are in a safe, learning environment.”

Brunswick County also issued this response:

Brunswick County began an extensive testing program for PFAS contaminants when academic studies revealed the presence of multiple PFAS in its drinking water, testing a suite of PFAS contaminants on a weekly basis. Brunswick County’s water samples have continuously remained below the EPA’s established health advisory levels for PFOA + PFOS and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ established provisional health goal for GenX, however the combined levels of all PFAS is concerning and the County continues to test and monitor for most known PFAS compounds and GenX during its routine testing.

At this time, the EPA does not have an established health goal for several of the other compounds listed in this report that are contributing to the overall 185.9 ppt sample level, however the PFOA + PFOS and GenX sample levels in this report are also below the provisional health goals mentioned above. Due to the fact that little or no study has been done on the health effects of combined PFAS or many of these individual PFAS found in the source water, Brunswick County has taken a proactive approach to install the most protective water treatment system at the Northwest Water Treatment Plant to remove these contaminants.

Brunswick County’s leadership recognizes that high quality water is of paramount importance to our customers and residents and agree that reverse osmosis is the most effective PFAS removal technology, which is why the Board of Commissioners and county administration are embarking on a project to install an advanced low-pressure reverse osmosis treatment system at the Northwest Water Treatment Plant, as well as increase capacity at the plant to support the county’s growth. Brunswick County Public Utilities has been working diligently with engineers at CDM-Smith and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to design, permit and build an economical low-pressure reverse osmosis system at the plant for the benefit of all Brunswick County water users.

Low-pressure reverse osmosis is considered one of the most advanced and effective methods to treat and remove both regulated and unregulated materials from drinking water, including GenX, 1,4-dioxane and other per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). In April 2018, the County conducted two rounds of testing on a pilot low-pressure reverse osmosis system at the Northwest Water Treatment Plant. The results showed that low-pressure reverse osmosis reduced most PFAS including GenX to undetectable levels, essentially removing all the components.

Not only do pilot studies indicate that low-pressure reverse osmosis is the most effective advanced treatment method for PFAS removal, but they also indicate that it is the most economical advanced treatment option for the removal of high percentages of PFAS at the Northwest Water Treatment Plant. Most previous studies focus on the high-energy cost when using reverse osmosis for the treatment of saline or brackish water, but the cost is considerably less when used to treat fresh water for PFAS contaminants, especially short-chain PFAS.

All of the County’s water sample test reports are available to the public at

Brunswick County would notify customers and residents should any of its test samples exceed the health advisory levels established for PFOA + PFOS or GenX.

H2GO issued this response:

H2GO was dismayed to read the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) January 22nd study results “PFAS Contamination of Drinking Water Far More Prevalent Than Previously Reported”, in which Brunswick County topped the list in terms of PFAS contamination. While EWG points out that the results “…are not intended to identify specific water systems”, it is still of concern to H2GO and a matter they will continue to take seriously.
Currently, H2GO receives treated surface water from Brunswick County Public Utilities, which is then distributed to H2GO customers. Brunswick County diligently tested their water supply for the last two and a half years. Test results have continued to remain below EPA established health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ instituted provisional health goal for GenX, however the total PFAS sample level of 185.9 ppt is exceedingly troubling to H2GO. In turn, they have decided to ramp up their testing again to give our customers readily available data and additional testing results. This information will be posted to H2GO’s website at
EWG scientists believe that “…PFAS is likely detectable in all major water supplies in the U.S., almost certainly in all that use surface water.” In 2011 H2GO began proactively planning for an alternate water supply, one that was aquifer-based and not reliant on the Cape Fear River. The EWG study touts reverse osmosis as the most effective method for removal, stating that “studies have demonstrated that reverse osmosis treatment is effective for removal of all types of long and shorter-chain PFAS.” Tested when the GenX story first broke in 2017, H2GO found that their deep well, confined aquifers were free of any manmade chemicals, including PFAS. With the recent revelations surrounding the public water supply in Brunswick County and the eight years of studies and preparation surrounding the Aquifer-Based Reverse Osmosis Water Treatment Plant, it is prevalent now more than ever how crucial it is for H2GO to build their secure an alternate water supply.

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