PFAS Contamination: One River Among Many

A NextGen Blog post by Michelle O’Brien, University of North Carolina Wilmington

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. This NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts students’ essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Michelle O’Brien is a student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, majoring in Environmental Science with a concentration in Conservation Biology. This, her first NWNL post is excerpted from her senior research project on PFAS contamination in North Carolina‘s Cape Fear River. We are excited she has joined the NWNL NextGen Team and look forward to more original research from her on other critical watershed issues.

The Cape Fear River, flowing for 191 miles through east-central North Carolina, is severely impacted by multiple pollutants before it empties into the Atlantic. Agricultural and industrial runoff, feces contamination from pet waste and broader non-point-source pollution are factors contributing to the pollution of the Cape Fear River.[mfn]Gibbons[/mfn] While addressing each of these issues is essential to maintaining the integrity and quality of the Cape Fear River, the purpose of this article is to focus on the effects of per- and polyfluoroalkyl contamination, called PFAS, on water quality and human health. Production of these chemicals started in the 1930’s.[mfn]Ross[/mfn] It did not take long for the companies producing these chemicals to realize the potential risks linked with contact of these substances and the harm these chemicals posed to human health. 

Map of Cape Fear River, courtesy of WikiCommons

PFAS “Forever Chemicals” in the US

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are found in most of the products we touch and consume, thus complete avoidance of these compounds is extremely challenging.[mfn]Cousins[/mfn] Industries use PFAS for products including water resistant clothing, non-stick coatings, food packaging and wrappers, firefighting foam, paint and other common household products.[mfn]Environmental Protection Agency[/mfn] According to the Food and Drug Administration, there are currently 5,000 different manmade per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in the United States with little to no regulation in place. These chemicals are not just found in consumer products and packaging, but are detectable in our air and waterways as well.[mfn]Kotlarz[/mfn] PFAS substances are nicknamed “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment and the difficulty in filtering and breaking them down.[mfn]McCord & Collier[/mfn] Exposure at an early age to PFAS has been linked to negative impacts on brain development and cognitive growth.[mfn]Kotlarz[/mfn] PFAS are more than a hazard to the environment – they are a threat to the safety of mankind and the health of future generations.

There are currently no federal regulations yet for PFAS levels in drinking water, although the EPA has set a “recommended” lifetime advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.[mfn]Environmental Protection Agency[/mfn] This suggested level is rarely enforced as companies are not required to report findings to the government on levels of contamination.[mfn]Evans[/mfn] Other organizations, such as the Environmental Working Group [EWG}, have set recommended safety levels based on extensive research and testing. They have set their maximum recommended level of PFAS in drinking water at 1ppt.[mfn]Evans[/mfn] Various states are also adopting their own regulations and advisory levels for PFAS substances in drinking water. This is likely due to the increase in citizen awareness and growing evidence regarding the threats PFAS pose to human health.[mfn]Herkert[/mfn]

PFAS Contamination in the Cape Fear River

While per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are detectable across the United States, North Carolina has one of the highest levels of PFAS contamination in its drinking water supply.[mfn]Gibbons[/mfn] Out of the 44 sites that were tested, Brunswick County NC ranked #1 for highest PFAS levels and Wilmington ranked #5.[mfn]Evans{/mfn] This ranking is no coincidence, as both areas receive their drinking water from the lower Cape Fear River, a region polluted by upstream industries for decades.[mfn]Wagner & Buckland[/mfn] According to a 2017 “National Geographic” article, North Carolina’s Neuse and Cape Fear Rivers ranked # 7 in the top 10 most endangered rivers in the United States.[mfn]Petri[/mfn]

Cape Fear River, courtesy of Creative Commons

The Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database offers citizens access to crucial and comprehensive information in regard to US cities’ water quality. According to the EWG’s website, the Cape Fear River Utility Authority in Wilmington detected 24 contaminants in the water supply, 14 of which exceeded EWG’s Health Guidelines. Perfluoroheptanoic acid (PFHPA) was found to be 13 times EWG’s Health Standards. Testing at this facility detected 13.3 ppt, while the national average is 1.18 ppt and the state average is 1.35ppt (EWG). Many other contaminants were detected in this sample, including haloacetic, trichloroacetic and dichloroacetic acids; radium; and trihalomethanes (TTHMs), which exceeded EWG Health Standards 272 times.[mfn]Evans[/mfn]


The focus of this article is to bring attention to PFAS contamination in the Cape Fear River, and also to the PFAS threats that exist across the United States. The Cape Fear River is just one waterway among many. Regulatory action and implementation are necessary to guarantee cleaner and safer water supplies for all US communities. Further testing and research are critical in assessing the seriousness of the issue, as well as determining the breadth of the issue. Community awareness must continue for active change to move forward. While the environmental community has pushed for regulatory PFAS enforcement and monitoring, it is crucial that our government work directly with local stewards to establish practical safely regulations, monitoring and phasing-out of the use of these toxic chemicals.


Cousins, I. T., Goldenman, G., Herzke, D., Lohmann, R., Miller, M., Ng, C. A., Patton, S., Scheringer, M., Trier, X., Vierke, L., Wang, Z., & DeWitt, J. C. (2019). The concept of essential use for determining when uses of PFASs can be phased out. Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts21(11), 1803–1815.

Gibbons, S. (2020, March 24). Toxic ‘forever chemicals’ flow freely through this river-and now its fish. Retrieved September 5, 2020, from

Evans, S., Andrews, D., Stoiber, T., & Naidenko, O. (2020, January 22). PFAS contamination of drinking water far more prevalent than previously reported. EWG | Environmental Working Group. Retrieved October 2, 2020, from

Kotlarz, N., McCord, J., & Collier, D. (2017, July 7). Measurement of Novel, Drinking Water-Associated PFAS in Blood from Adults and Children in Wilmington, North Carolina. Retrieved November 14, 2020, from

Petri, A. (2017, April 11. Top 10 Most Endangered Rivers in the U.S. | National Geographic. Retrieved September 5, 2020, from

Wagner, A., & Buckland, T. (2017, June 16). Chemours: GenX polluting the Cape Fear since 1980. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from

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