Following the discovery of the chemical compound GenX in the Cape Fear River, researchers from universities across the state are taking on a new initiative to better understand what other compounds are in drinking water sources in North Carolina.

“This work is really unprecedented across the United States,” said Duke University professor Lee Ferguson. “This effort is really intended to increase confidence in the safety of drinking water across the state of North Carolina.”

Earlier this year, state lawmakers allocated $5 million for the research.

Over the next year-and-a-half, the Polyfluorinated Alkyl Substance Testing (PFAST) network will examine about 350 municipal water supplies, Ferguson said.

The North Carolina Policy Collaboratory will oversee the program, which involves more than 20 researchers.

State regulators have been investigating the impacts of GenX since researchers discovered it last year in the Cape Fear River, saying the chemical company Chemours discharged it into the river at its plant near Fayetteville since the 1980s.  

Ferguson says there’s still a lot that’s unknown about the potential impacts of GenX on human health.

“It’s really not well understood how many compounds or how many organic compounds that are used in commerce and in our daily lives might end up in the aquatic environment,” Ferguson said.

He noted GenX is part of a class of compounds known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) which will be the focus of this latest research project.

“Most importantly, the technologies have not been available to the sophisticated analytical chemistry necessary to find these compounds,” he said. “They are not present in regulatory agency laboratories such as NCDEQ or even EPA. Some of these technologies are now being brought into the regulatory environment, but for the most part they exist in research laboratories such as my own and those of my colleagues.”

The researchers working on the project will submit a report to the General Assembly by Dec. 2019. After that, Ferguson said it may help municipalities better understand what further technological upgrades they’ll need to make to filter out various compounds.

Ferguson said he wanted this research project to be broader in scope, not just focusing on PFAS. He wanted there to be a “full non-targeted analysis” but says he ran into resistance from industry lobbyists.

“It’s another thing to actually go in and do a full, non-targeted analysis to assess all possible or most possible emerging contaminants. And so, it’s a little more complicated to do that work. But, I hope that’s where we’re going in the future,” he said.