What do researchers know about the health effects of GenX?

A chemical compound, hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid, better known by the trade name of GenX, is still visible in the Roanoke River. Recent studies have shown that exposure to GenX can cause cancer, and it is extremely difficult to remove it from water.

background story

DuPont started using GenX in 2009. It is not a chemical compound, but a process for producing fluoropolymers. In 2015, DuPont created a spin-off brand, Chemours, which has proprietary GenX technology.

It was created to replace PFOA, also known as C-8, which was the subject of several lawsuits against DuPont, including the one featured in the movie “Dark Waters.”

“There was a thought that these smaller chemicals would be less environmentally or ecologically dangerous,” said Leigh-Anne Kromatis, an associate professor in biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech. “But it turns out that the smaller chemicals are actually more difficult to remove. They simply can’t be filtered out.”

Chromatis said the GenX chemicals build up in sediments, and dissolve in water, making them nearly impossible to get rid of.

health effects

There may also be health effects, according to several studies over the years. They have shown that GenX can damage the kidneys, liver, immune system, reproductive organs, and cause cancer. These studies, as Kemmers points out, were done using rats, not humans, and the company has stated that the chemicals used in the GenX technology are safe for humans.

The Environmental Protection Agency is taking note. Last summer, the agency issued a health advisory warning of these risks.

GenX doesn’t build up in our bodies like other PFAS chemicals. But long-term exposure can still pose a health risk, says Jane Hoppin, a researcher at North Carolina State University. He is on a team to study residents exposed to GenX.

“Although we are currently funded for five years, we have given consent for people to be in the study for up to 20 years,” Hoppin said.

His team is following people who were exposed after a Chemours plant next door contaminated their water and air in Fayetteville, North Carolina. This will be the first human study to assess the potential health risks of GenX.

impact on homeowner

Meanwhile, a handful of lawsuits have also been filed against Chemours in North Carolina over GenX.

Ted Leopold is an environmental lawyer representing residents whose homes still show remnants of these chemicals. “Many homes, if not all, have contaminated hot water heaters, for example, because sediment from these chemicals is 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 had to spend millions of dollars to repair their infrastructure.

“So this is a very complicated, difficult situation in which DuPont and Chemours have let the citizens of North Carolina down.”

Ohio Water System

Residents in Ohio and West Virginia have also been affected. GenX chemicals have been detected in the water supply for residents living downstream of a Chemours plant near Parkersburg—the same plant responsible for contaminating nearby water with PFOA. Water companies in Ohio are able to filter GenX out of their water, using a system that was actually created by DuPont to remove PFOA. David Altman, an advocate for the Little Hocking Water Association, said these filters work well to remove GenX chemicals.

But filtering out these chemicals doesn’t mean they disappear.

“This is now highly concentrated PFAS. That should be treated as hazardous waste,” Chromitis said. “And that’s an added expense. So especially for smaller drinking water plants, it’s going to be more expensive, and that’s going to make it more expensive for the consumer.”

How GenX Traveled to Virginia

Meanwhile, anything that comes in contact with the chemicals can also become contaminated, and that’s what happened to the Roanoke River.

According to a letter from Chemours to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in 2015, Chemours began shipping equipment used in GenX technology by ProChem, a company in Alliston, Virginia.

It is not clear at this time whether the Chemors knew it was transporting hazardous waste, but the result is that a small amount of GenX chemicals flowed into the Roanoke River for seven years. Kemmers estimated that about .06 pounds per year were sent to Virginia.

Last summer, the West Virginia Water Authority stopped pumping contaminated water into its Spring Hollow reservoir, and began filtering drinking water to remove GenX chemicals. Sarah Baumgardner, a spokeswoman for the water authority, 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 conduct regular tests 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 it is no longer being offered.” The water authority said it does not expect rates to increase as a result of these expenses.

The authority says tests from December have confirmed that GenX chemicals are still in the Roanoke River. Since August 2022, every test they’ve conducted has confirmed that the finished drinking water being distributed to homes and businesses is below the EPA’s health advisory limit of 10 ppt, except for two days, one in September and one in October In 2022, when his filter wasn’t working.

New EPA decision expected soon

The EPA announced last summer that it has $1 billion in grant funding available through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help communities deal with PFAS contamination.

In the next few weeks, the agency plans to issue new drinking water regulations that will include rules on what amounts of PFAS are allowed in drinking water, including GenX. The decision could affect what happens next for communities across the country that have been exposed, and who is responsible for making sure the water is safe before it gets into the water supply.

Kmers declined a request to do a recorded interview for this story, but the company sent a statement. They say that the chemicals used in its GenX technology are safe for humans.

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