What do researchers know about the health impacts of GenX?
A chemical compound, hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid, better known by its trade name of GenX, is still showing up in the Roanoke River. Recent studies have shown that exposure to GenX could cause cancer, and it’s extremely difficult to remove from water.
The back story
DuPont began using GenX in 2009. It’s not a chemical compound, but a process for producing fluoropolymer. In 2015, DuPont created a spin-off brand, Chemours, which has ownership over the GenX technology.
It was created to replace PFOA, also called C-8, which was the subject of several lawsuits against DuPont, including one featured in the film “Dark Waters.”
“There was a thought that these smaller chemicals would be less environmentally or, ecologically dangerous,” said Leigh-Anne Krometis, an associate professor in biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech. “But it turns out that smaller chemicals are actually more difficult to remove. They can’t be filtered out as easily.”
Krometis said GenX chemicals build up in sediment, and dissolve in water, making it nearly impossible to get rid of them.
There could be health impacts too, according to several studies over the past few years. They have shown that GenX may cause damage to the kidney, liver, immune system, reproductive organs and cause cancer. These studies, as Chemours points out, were conducted using rodents, not humans, and the company has said that chemicals used in GenX technology are safe for humans.
The Environmental Protection Agency is taking note. Last summer, the agency released a health advisory, warning of these risks.
GenX doesn’t build up in our bodies, the way other PFAS chemicals do. But long term exposure could still pose health risks, says Jane Hoppin, a researcher at North Carolina State University. She’s on a team to study residents who were exposed to GenX.
“While we’re currently funded for five years, we have consented people to be in the study for up to 20,” Hoppin said.
Her team is following people who were exposed after their water and air was contaminated next to a Chemours plant in Fayetteville, North Carolina. This will be the first human study to weigh the potential health risks of GenX.
Impacts on homeowners
Meanwhile, a handful of lawsuits have also been filed against Chemours in North Carolina over GenX.
Ted Leopold is a partner at Cohen Milstein, a law firm that's representing residents in North Carolina whose homes are still showing remnants of these chemicals. “In many many homes, if not all of them, hot water heaters are contaminated, for example, because these chemicals’ sediment are sitting at the bottom of these hot water heaters,” Leopold said.
He also points out that water utility companies in North Carolina that were exposed to these chemicals also have to spend millions of dollars revamping their infrastructure.
“So it’s a very convoluted, difficult situation that DuPont and Chemours have left the citizens of North Carolina in.”
Ohio water systems
Residents in Ohio and West Virginia are also impacted. GenX chemicals been detected in the water supply for residents who live downstream of a Chemours plant near Parkersburg— the same plant was responsible for contaminating nearby water with PFOA. Water companies in Ohio have been able to filter GenX from their water, using a system that was actually created by DuPont to remove P-F-O-A. A lawyer for the Little Hocking Water Association, David Altman, said these filters happen to work well to remove GenX chemicals.
But filtering these chemicals doesn’t mean they disappear.
“It’s now hyper concentrated PFAS. Which has to be treated as hazardous waste,” Krometis said. “And that’s an added expense. So especially for small drinking water plants, it’s going to be more expensive, and make it more expensive for the consumer.”
How GenX traveled to Virginia
Meanwhile, everything that comes in contact with the chemicals could become contaminated too, and that’s what happened along the Roanoke River.
According to a letter from Chemours to the Virginia Department of Environmental quality, beginning in 2015, Chemours began shipping equipment that it used in GenX technology to be serviced by ProChem, a company in Elliston, Virginia.
It’s not clear at this time if Chemours was aware it was transporting hazardous waste, but the result is that for seven years, a small amount of GenX chemicals were washed into the Roanoke River. Chemours estimates that approximately .06 pounds per year was sent to Virginia.
Last summer, the Western Virginia Water Authority stopped pumping the contaminated water into its Spring Hollow Reservoir, and began filtering drinking water to remove GenX chemicals. A spokesperson for the water authority, Sarah Baumgardner, said they are working to upgrade the granular activated carbon process at Spring Hollow, which is estimated to cost $2.1 million. The authority has also hired consultants to do regular testing along the Roanoke River and in their drinking water.
“And it’s expensive,” Baumgardner said. “And we will continue to test until we are confident that this is not being introduced anymore.” The water authority said it doesn’t expect rates to increase as a result of these expenses.
The authority says that tests from December have confirmed that GenX chemicals are still in the Roanoke River. From August 2022 to now, every test they’ve conducted has confirmed that the finished drinking water being distributed to homes and businesses has been below the EPA’s health advisory limit of 10 ppt, except for two days, one in September and one in October 2022, when their filter wasn’t working.
New EPA ruling expected soon
In the next few weeks, the agency plans to release new drinking water regulations that will include rules on how much PFAS is allowed in drinking water, including GenX. This ruling could impact what happens next for communities across the country that have been exposed, and who’s responsible for ensuring the water is safe before it gets into the water supply.
Chemours declined a request to do a recorded interview for this story, but the company did sent a statement. They say the chemicals used in its GenX technology are safe for humans.