Downwind from chemical giant Chemours’ PFAS manufacturing plant in North Carolina, Jamie White’s life is a series of unpleasant negotiations.
Protecting herself and her family means sacrifice: should she let her grandkids play outdoors on her small farm and ride the horse, or keep them indoors? Her inground swimming pool sits dry. Should she eat potentially contaminated vegetables, or give up gardening?
“It’s awful, but there’s nothing we can do,” said White, who has lived on her small farm for 15 years.
But residents should be safe, Chemours and state regulators claim. A 2019 state consent order legally requires Chemours to rein in pollution from its Fayetteville Works plant and reduce air emissions by at least 99%.
The mandate prompted Chemours to invest $100m on air emission controls, including a thermal oxidizer it bills as “world class” technology allegedly capable of destroying PFAS, which are widely considered impossible to eliminate on an industrial scale.
Chemours made the thermal oxidizer the centerpiece of an ongoing, controversial public relations campaign launched in early 2022. The new technology, the company claims, has reduced PFAS air emissions by “greater than 99.999-plus percent”. State regulators have largely concurred, stating PFAS emissions have been reduced by at least 99%, suggesting the air is safe for residents like White.
Guardian-commissioned testing of air quality outside the plant, however, finds that may not be true. Using a more comprehensive test than those used by state regulators, the Guardian found PFAS levels outside the plant far above those detected and reported as evidence of Chemours’ success – as much as 30 times higher.
Researchers fear the air emissions contribute significantly to widespread PFAS contamination of the region’s water and food supplies.
The Guardian collected air samples at two sites monitored by the North Carolina department of environmental quality (DEQ). Chemours’ tests only check for a very limited number of PFAS, while the Guardian commissioned a test that looks for markers of all the chemicals.
Though the Guardian’s testing employed similar methodology as regulators’, it is not peer reviewed and has limitations. However, it provides a snapshot of PFAS levels around the plant, researchers who helped design the analysis say.
The findings “clearly raise questions about emissions of compounds not targeted by [state regulators],” said Detlef Knappe, a professor of environmental engineering at North Carolina State University who has studied Chemours’ PFAS pollution and tested some of the Guardian’s samples.
In a statement, Chemours called the Guardian’s findings “false” and “irresponsible”, while questioning the testing methodologies.
PFAS are a class of chemicals most often used to make water-, heat- and stain-resistant products. The chemicals have been linked to cancer, liver disease, kidney problems and decreased immunity, among other serious health problems.
Chemours, a PFAS manufacturer spun off from DuPont in 2015, has contaminated the environment across hundreds of square miles in south-east North Carolina with PFAS waste, a previous Guardian analysis of regulatory documents found. Many residents charge that it has sickened and killed people on a wide scale and the United Nations recently raised concern that the plant’s pollution violated residents’ right to clean water.
Chemours’ air emissions are concerning because they are easily dispersed across the region. PFAS do not naturally break down once in the environment and many are toxic at very low exposure levels; when it rains, the chemicals can contaminate soil, crops and drinking water supplies.
The Guardian’s findings come as Chemours has proposed an expansion of Fayetteville Works. In its expansion bid and in statements to the Guardian, Chemours repeatedly stressed that its air emissions are in compliance with the consent order and the 99% reduction claim is central to its case.
Knappe said the “disconnect” between the company’s test results and the Guardian’s may stem from the terms of Chemours’ consent order, which includes narrow definitions of PFAS.
Chemours must reduce emissions for three PFAS compounds plant-wide, as well as around 50 through its thermal oxidizer, a DEQ spokesperson said in an email. However, around 15,000 PFAS exist.
When Chemours says it has reduced PFAS emissions by “99.999 plus percent”, the company is referring to the smaller number of PFAS.
The Guardian-commissioned test looked for PFAS that cannot be identified by the tests used by Chemours and regulators. But they are still PFAS, said Graham Peaslee, a professor of physics at University of Notre Dame who conducted the analysis using an “absorbable organic fluorine” test he developed.
Chemours is “spraying PFAS all over the environment”, said Peaslee, referring to the higher level of PFAS detected by the Guardian’s testing. “And it is probably dangerous.”
Fayetteville Works’ air emissions likely come from one of three sources in the plant, according to both researchers who participated in the data collection and other experts who reviewed the Guardian’s analysis.
One of those sources is the plant’s thermal oxidizer, which breaks apart PFAS at high temperatures and captures them. But it is possible the PFAS compounds are not captured, researchers who spoke with the Guardian say.
They could also escape as gasses that are not detected by testing commissioned by the Guardian or regulators, and there is “no information on what stack emissions are in terms of [PFAS] gasses”, Knappe said.
Chemours’ use of thermal oxidizer technology to reduce emissions at a PFAS manufacturing plant is new and the consent order is limited in its testing requirements, so the Guardian’s findings are “not surprising”, said Barbara Turpin, a professor at University of North Carolina who studies PFAS.
“The thermal oxidizer was an important first step but it certainly doesn’t mean Chemours has stopped emitting PFAS,” said Turpin, who has studied Fayetteville Works’ air emissions, but did not collaborate on the Guardian’s testing.
PFAS are highly mobile, volatile and can easily escape from the plant’s piping and buildings, so a second source of air pollution, which Knappe said the Guardian’s testing likely detects, is called “fugitive emissions”. The PFAS found by the Guardian could also stem from failure in other filtration systems, he added.
The DEQ, which conducts air quality testing around Fayetteville Works and enforces the consent order, did not comment on the findings, but said Chemours is in compliance with the consent order.
In an email, a Chemours representative described the absorbable organic fluorine test used by the Guardian as “unproven”. He added that regulators verified the fugitive emissions and thermal oxidizer levels and found them to be in compliance with the consent order.
Like Turpin, White is unsurprised by the Guardian’s findings, but for a different reason – Chemours has tried to deceive residents about Fayetteville Works’ PFAS pollution for years, she said, and many have lost trust. The test results show another discrepancy, she said.
“We don’t expect them to tell the truth,” White added.
The Guardian checked ambient air samples by collecting rainwater in non-fluorinated buckets that were placed within feet of the state environmental agency’s collection sites near Fayetteville Works. It did so during the same time period as the agency – the week of 28 September 2022.
In collaboration with the Guardian, Peaslee conducted the more comprehensive test that looks for markers of all PFAS. The results were compared with the findings from the state test – known as an “EPA 537 modified” – which looked for about 50 PFAS compounds.
At one site, the state reported two parts per trillion (ppt) of PFAS in the air, while Guardian-commissioned testing found 30 times that – 62ppt. At another site, the state showed 76 ppt, while the Guardian found 119 ppt.
The difference is “pretty remarkable”, Peaslee said.
Because the Guardian did not test the same water collected by the state and use the exact same methodologies, the analysis is not a true side-by-side comparison.
To account for that, the Guardian also checked its samples using a test similar to the EPA 537 modified test used by the state. In three out of four samples, the more comprehensive test still found similar or higher levels – in one case over 30 times above the state’s test.
Chemours questioned the efficacy of testing conducted by Peaslee because it was not verified by a second lab. It also claimed the PFAS detected outside Fayetteville Works may not have come from its plant.
Researchers who reviewed the data said it is possible a very small amount of the PFAS originated elsewhere, but most of the chemicals identified are unique to Chemours.
Fayetteville Works produces particularly small “ultra short-chain” PFAS of which the full amount present in the environment cannot be captured by virtually any test, according to Peaslee, and most of the world’s PFAS pollution is thought to be made up of these chemicals.
“There’s a lot more out there that we’re not capturing, but we’re still finding a lot of the PFAS that [regulators] kicked out of the library and don’t test for,” he said.
“It’s a good question and the answer is I don’t know, and nobody knows,” Knappe said. “That exposure route is poorly understood.”
But given the track record of the PFAS class, regulators should “exercise extreme caution” with unstudied chemicals, Turpin said.
“Putting more PFAS in the environment is not advisable,” she said.
After over a decade living in the shadow of Fayetteville Works, Mike Watters suffers from blood disease, stubbornly high cholesterol and hypertension, all linked to PFAS exposure. In April, the military veteran had a heart attack that caused his heart to stop beating for nearly three minutes.
He believes PFAS is to blame. “I’m positive it was tied to the PFAS contamination,” Watters said. “In 23 years an enemy could not kill me, but DuPont and Chemours did for 2 minutes and 38 seconds.”
Aside from the toll on his health, the pollution is an endless source of frustration and a financial burden. Watters’ problems are a microcosm of those faced by the larger region.
When PFAS air pollution lands or rains onto the ground, the chemicals percolate through soil into groundwater where they can contaminate wells, or taint drinking water. The contaminated groundwater has been moving into the Cape Fear River, and contaminating downstream communities’ drinking water. Testing has also found chemicals in local vegetables.
Watters, who helped collect samples for the Guardian’s testing, knows firsthand how the pollution can upend lives.
His well is so contaminated that Chemours has provided him with clean drinking water or filtration since 2017, at which point, Watters stopped growing his own food. He began researching ways of living off the land without furthering his exposure to PFAS. His solution: an elaborate, $11,000 greenhouse with air and water filtration systems that he began developing last year. It is expensive, but “it’s the only way to know your vegetables are safe”, Watters said.
In the years since 2017, Watters’ soil appears to have stayed contaminated. In September 2022, soil testing conducted by Knappe on Watters’ property found PFAS at 6ft deep.
Most around Fayetteville do not take these and other precautions against air emissions, he said. He believes they’re misinformed.
“The DEQ tells them it reduces 99.999% [of PFAS],’” he said. “But I’m going ‘Ok, you need to read the consent order.’”
In fact, regulators use three separate legal definitions of “PFAS” in the consent order, which opens the door for Chemours to make claims that are legally true but likely do not line up with reality.
According to the consent order and a related air pollution permit, Chemours must reduce “all PFAS” coming from the thermal oxidizer by at least 99.99%. But “all PFAS” in this instance actually means about 50 compounds, the DEQ spokesperson Shawn Taylor told the Guardian in response to emailed questions seeking clarification.
The order also requires Chemours to reduce “facility-wide” emissions of “GenX compounds” by at least 99%. “GenX compounds” encompasses just three kinds of PFAS chemicals, Taylor said.
Taylor did not respond to questions about why the agency would test for three compounds facility wide, but about 50 from the thermal oxidizer, but reiterated that Chemours emissions are in compliance with the consent order. He noted Chemours is only legally required to reduce emissions emitting from inside the plant, but is not responsible for PFAS in the air outside the plant.
The consent order includes varying definitions of PFAS because of the limited information on some compounds at the time, said Geoff Gisler, a Southern Environmental Law Center attorney that negotiated the consent order on behalf of North Carolina residents who in 2017 sued the company.
The DEQ has authority to expand its definition of PFAS and test for more chemicals as the technology to do so improves, Gisler said.
“What gets lost here frequently is the requirements in the consent order are not the ceiling, they are the floor,” he added.
Despite absorbable organic fluorine tests offering a more complete picture of PFAS levels, regulators are unlikely to begin widely using them, industry experts say.
The definition of PFAS maintained by the EPA’s toxic chemicals office is relatively narrow; it does not include some chemicals made by Chemours that are defined as PFAS by other agencies across much of the US federal government, EU and scientific world.
In 2019, a citizen group from the Cape Fear basin region in North Carolina, where Chemours is based, filed a petition asking the EPA to conduct health studies on 54 PFAS compounds found in human blood and water in the region. The agency later declined to test for 15 of those chemicals, claiming they “do not meet” the agency’s PFAS definition.
Similarly, there appears to be little appetite to look for all PFAS outside Chemours’ plant using the absorbable organic fluorine test. And so Watters, who recently finished cardiac rehabilitation following his heart attack, believes he will continue to be exposed to dangerous chemicals. So does White, who fights to keep down her weight which has nearly doubled from her thyroid disorder.
She tries to protect herself and family, and has even covered her gardens to shield them from air pollution. But the vegetables died. She said she feels a sense of helplessness.
“We feel completely trapped,” White said.