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UNC-CH researchers find new types of PFAS in the Cape Fear River

Early morning anglers heading downstream from Avent's Ferry on the Cape Fear River, near Corinth, North Carolina.
Donald Lee Pardue
Flickr/Creative Commons
Early morning anglers heading downstream from Avent's Ferry on the Cape Fear River, near Corinth, North Carolina.

Previously unknown types of toxic chemicals known as PFAS have been discovered in the Cape Fear River.

Researchers at the UNC-Chapel Hill used samples from the Cape Fear River collected in 2016. Samples were collected downstream from Chemours' Fayetteville Works facility. Using a new detection method, researchers tested the samples and found 47 different PFAS. Of those, 11 had not been previously detected in the river, and eight had not been detected anywhere outside of a lab.

The Environmental Protection Agency has a list of more than 14,000 known or potential types of PFAS.

"And none of these eight were even on that [list of] 14,000," said Erin Baker, a UNC chemistry professor whose lab pioneered this work. "So [this] really shows us that there's a lot more chemical space that we're not even able to predict right now."

The new detection method used in this study is called a non-targeted approach.

"The EPA uses [a targeted approach]. It’s like combing through a word search puzzle and only being able to search for a specific set of words," a press release from UNC Research explained. "Baker’s lab has developed a non-targeted approach, which allows them to search for any word in a puzzle."

Baker said her lab will continue to test using this new method.

"Now that we're seeing there's so many chemicals that we... didn't know existed, we really want to make sure that we're covering as much chemical space as possible," she said.

PFAS are found in many household items and in several North Carolina waterways. PFAS have been linked to various health issues, including cancer and infertility.

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.
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