Study: Brunswick County tops national list for PFAS contamination

Updated: Jan. 22, 2020 at 8:29 AM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Brunswick County has the highest level of PFAS contamination in its tap water among the 44 sites tested in 31 states across the country, according to a new study that was released Wednesday by on organization called Environmental Working Group (EWG).

According to the study, water tested in Brunswick County measured various compounds at 185.9 parts per trillion. The EWG measurement is a total number of all compounds detected in the sample. However, Brunswick County’s sample falls below the EPA health advisory level of 70 ppt which takes into account PFOA and PFOS compounds only. Based on numbers provided by EWG, Brunswick County’s sample measures 23.3 ppt when measuring PFOA + PFOS.

The Brunswick County sample was taken from Belville Elementary School by the group Clean Cape Fear.

The samples for the study were taken between May and December of 2019 and analyzed by an independent lab.

Wilmington ranked fifth in the EWG study.

The study also found PFAS compounds are present in rainwater in all major water supplies in the country.

A spokesperson for Brunswick County Schools, responding to the report, said since the county hasn’t issued an advisory about the drinking water, the district will operate as normal. However, they will provide bottled water on-site to staff and students.

John Nichols, Brunswick County’s Public Utility Director, says Brunswick County takes the water quality very seriously.

“We are working very hard to get it out of our drinking water,” said Nichols. “It is a serious concern for staff at Brunswick County utilities, the administration, and elected officials.”

Brunswick County released the following statement on the study’s findings:

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.

“We are meeting all of the EPA requirements, all the state requirements, but we recognize that there is concern with the levels of PFAS in the drinking water,” said Nichols. “The issues with these contaminates, there is very little studies that have been done on many of them, so it’s hard to say exactly what kind of health risk that they, as a group, represent.”

CFPUA’s Vaughn Dagtery commented on the study amid water containment concerns across the Cape Fear.

“It’s not something we don’t, we in our community, don’t already know; there’s PFAS," said Hagerty. "That’s why we’re one, taking the interim steps to reduce PFAS in the cape fear river by making changes to existing filters at Sweeney, but two, we’ve just embarked in November on a 43 million dollar project to construct new filters that will reduce PFAS in water that we treat at Sweeney Water Treatment Plant by 90%.”

More on the EWG study can be found here.

PFAS levels at 44 sites.
PFAS levels at 44 sites.(EWG)
Overall PFAS measurements for Brunswick County according to an EWG study.
Overall PFAS measurements for Brunswick County according to an EWG study.(EWG (custom credit) | EWG)

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