Correction: A previous version of this article included a headline indicating the water in Burlington, town of Elon is toxic to residents. The headline has been changed to reflect the newest health advisory from the EPA, which states that the water has higher than recommended levels of PFAS; this can result in potential health risks as outlined in the article. Elon News Network regrets this error.
PFAS contamination in Burlington’s water treatment plants and tap water is no longer within levels deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency, after it revised its health advisory for the chemicals in June.
Burlington supplies water to approximately 23,000 customer accounts and 57,000 residents across Alamance and Guilford Counties, as well as communities including Gibsonville, Whitsett and Elon, according to Bob Patterson, water resource director.
Jessica Merricks, Pittsboro resident and Elon University professor of biology, said it was only a matter of time before Burlington —like so many other communities — saw this level of contamination.
“Burlington is not unique in this way,” Merricks said. “There are communities like us that have been fighting a little bit longer, so we kind of know what the story is going to be. We know a little bit about what you have to look forward to, unfortunately.”
Often called “forever chemicals,” PFAS is a class of synthetic chemicals used for a variety of purposes, from military operations to the formation of products such as cosmetics, nonstick skillets and popcorn bags.
PFAS chemicals never fully break down and accumulate in the environment, animals and humans. Prolonged exposure to high concentrations of PFAS results in potential health risks, including increased cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and kidney or testicular cancer, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
“Everyone has it, everyone has some level of PFAS in their blood,” Merricks said. “But what is most concerning are communities that not only have this baseline exposure, because of eating the popcorn bag or using the skillet, but also from consuming the drinking water, which is the case in Pittsboro and is the case in Burlington.”
The EPA drastically lowered its health advisory from 70 parts per trillion over a 70-year life span for PFOS and PFOA — two PFAS chemicals — to .02 part of PFOS per trillion and .004 parts of PFOA per trillion. This is equivalent to the consumption of less than one droplet of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool over the course of 70 years.
Patterson stressed that the drinking water Burlington produces did not suddenly change in June with the new EPA health advisory levels.
“Our water still meets all the state and federal drinking water regulations,” Patterson said.
The EPA wants the limits to be as close as possible to zero to show how toxic these compounds are, according to Harvard School of Public Health.
According to the city of Burlington, the average combined PFOS and PFOA in drinking water from Burlington's JD Mackintosh Water Treatment Plant is 3.16 parts per trillion. The average from Burlington's Ed Thomas Water Treatment Plant is 20 parts per trillion.
“Based on hydraulic characteristics and geography, the water Elon receives is probably more influenced by the Mackintosh Treatment Plant than the Ed Thomas Plant, but that can vary some depending on the water usage throughout the distribution system,” Patterson said.
Merricks and microbiologist Katie Bryant are co-founders of Clean Haw River, a group of Pittsboro-based activists dedicated to protecting local water sources from industrial waste. The pair said they partnered two years ago to educate their community about the danger of PFAS pollution.
“The biggest benefit I think for myself coming to Pittsboro with a science background is understanding when something’s urgent,” Bryant said. “And the rest of the community just brushes it off, I think for some because they didn't understand it. I think also they didn't want to acknowledge it. It's scary. It's not fun … and she and I met thankfully and formed and decided we're just going to start telling the public since nobody else wants to.”
For at least two years, Merricks and Bryant have waited for guidance from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine highlighting the dangers of PFAS exposure. A NASEM report released in July confirmed the level of risk. Merricks said this guidance is especially important to educate physicians in the healthcare community so they can offer better clinical treatment to those at highest risk.
“I want to iterate that this is not something we’ve known before, not something that’s been articulated in this way — and we’ve known about these compounds for decades and decades,” Merricks said. “Finally now, the conversation is becoming more serious, and people are able to look at the types of health concerns that they have and start to potentially make connections to their exposure.”
Bryant called the NASEM report “alarming” in its implications for residents of the Burlington community.
“Every system you learn about — your nervous system, your cardiovascular system, your fat metabolism, your digestive system, your reproductive system — it impacts every single system, which is crazy,” Bryant said. “There’s very few things that do that, and it’s because of how persistent it is. It doesn’t go away.”
Merricks said their organization can serve as a resource for both students and the surrounding community. She encouraged Elon students to educate themselves about PFAS pollution in their home states, regardless of their proximity to Burlington or Pittsboro.
“Everyone at this point should be thinking about this,” Merricks said. “Wherever we’re ingesting water is where we need to be concerned.”
When living on campus, Merricks said students are at a high risk of exposure when taking very hot showers or filling up tea kettles with tap water. This is because unlike bacteria or viruses, boiling water does not get rid of PFAS. Rather, it increases the chemical concentration, making water more toxic.
One of Elon University’s missions is to teach students what it means to be an engaged citizen, and Merricks believes it’s important students know and understand what is going on in the community that surrounds them. Even if Elon students are buying bottled water and are not cooking with it, Merricks said there are thousands of people in Burlington who are.
“That is really important from my perspective as an Elon faculty member, that our students understand that it’s not just your health we need to be thinking about,” Merricks said. “It’s Burlington’s health, it’s Pittsboro’s health, because we are right down the river from you.”
Both Merricks and Bryant believe education and awareness in communities like Pittsboro and Burlington are crucial. Merricks said Elon’s campus does not equate to the “real world” students will enter after graduation.
“We are surrounded by a community that is desperately in need of this type of education,” Merricks said. “We are primed to give them an education, we are primed to contribute to that conversation so that people can know what to do and who to talk to and what noise to make, because that at the end of the day is what brings forth change … I’m not going to put my family at risk a day longer.”