PITTSBORO, N.C. (WNCN) – Chemours and its role in the chemical compound GenX being released into water and air has been discussed for years. The industrial site sits along the Cape Fear River, which supplies water to nearby communities and those downstream.

Researchers have found that people studied in Wilmington had higher levels of PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” in their blood than the national average.

“We wanted to go upriver and include Pittsboro in our understanding of PFAS exposure throughout the basin, as well as trying to focus on what the potential health effects could be,” said Jane Hoppin, an environmental epidemiologist at North Carolina State University. “We don’t know what’s happening maybe in Greensboro, maybe in Burlington. The Cape Fear is a long river and so that would also be very interesting to ultimately get those resources.”

Duke researchers found a sample of 49 people in Pittsboro who had the same high rates of forever chemicals in their blood as people in Wilmington. Hoppin and her team will now conduct a more extensive study with Pittsboro volunteers who will submit blood and urine samples.

In 2020, N.C. State received a five-year, $7.4 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Superfund Research Program. The money is being used to fund the Center for Environmental and Human Health Effects of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS).

How is it that “forever chemicals” are being found in such levels in people who live upstream, including the Haw River area? Since some PFAS can remain in the human system for decades, some of it could have come from manufacturing plants that are long since closed.

“There’s not a lot of furniture, textile manufacturing happening anymore, but waste products and discharge to the environment has happened and will continue to wash into the water over time,” Hoppin said.

Many of those chemicals were designed to make people’s lives easier, including everything from nonstick cookware to waterproof gear. They’ve now been found to cause thyroid conditions, cancer, high cholesterol, and a decreased immune system, now putting COVID-19 into play.

“The immune system is responsible for everything. So, how you respond to an infection, how you respond to an allergy. And so, for COVID, do people who have higher PFAS, are they going to get sicker when they get COVID? Are they more likely to get long COVID? We don’t yet know the answers to these questions,” Hoppin said.

Researchers hope to find out the effect PFAS have on the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines and whether boosters may be needed more frequently. Hoppin pointed out that most vaccinations come when as children before long-term exposure to forever chemicals.

A sampling event is scheduled for Pittsboro residents on Nov. 13 and 14 at the Chatham County Agriculture and Conference Center, located at 1192 US-64 Business in Pittsboro. People ages 6 and older, who have used Town of Pittsboro municipal water or Aqua N.C. water for at least a year, are eligible. Up to four members per household may enroll. Participants will receive their test results and $20 in cash.

Individuals will be asked to provide a blood sample, complete a questionnaire, and have their height and weight measured. Blood will be analyzed to detect GenX and a suite of PFAS chemicals. Additionally, the blood will be tested to determine lipid levels and thyroid and liver function. Blood samples will also be analyzed for antibodies to COVID-19 vaccines to evaluate whether PFAS levels influence response to vaccines.