Dozens of neighbors of a North Carolina chemical plant had industrial compounds in their bloodstreams, but tests by state and federal health officials outlined Tuesday didn't find the much-debated and little-studied one they were looking for.
None of the 30 people living around a Chemours Co. plant south of Fayetteville showed the chemical GenX produced by the company in their blood or urine. But all 30 neighbors did have in their blood at least four of the 16 similar chemicals tested, North Carolina's Department of Health and Human Services said.
Scientists don't know how much per- and polyfluoroalkyl, or PFAS, chemicals in the body may be unsafe.
The testing "really highlights the fact that we just don't always know what kind of compounds, what kinds of chemicals that we use in our daily lives are making their way into our bodies," said Lee Ferguson, a Duke University environmental analytical chemist who has studied PFAS chemicals. "This data highlights the fact that PFAS compounds are ubiquitous in our bodies from exposure through our daily lives."
Thousands of man-made chemicals listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency haven't been tested for human effects.
PFAS are a large family of man-made chemicals in use worldwide since the 1950s to make carpets, clothing, furniture fabrics, food packaging and cookware to make them resistant to water, grease or stains. They are also used for firefighting at airfields and varied industrial processes.
Seven of the chemicals showed up in blood concentrations beyond 95 percent of the population tested by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most PFAS substances either weren't found in the bloodstreams of the people tested, or were detected at levels similar to available U.S. population data.
Nine of 17 PFAS chemicals were detected in blood samples of at least one of the participants, according to testing performed by the CDC.
The North Carolina study is further evidence to something scientists have established — that industrial chemicals are in nearly every American's body, State Epidemiologist Zack Moore said.
"Nobody likes the idea of man-made chemicals detectable in their bloodstream," he said.
Human studies haven't been conducted to examine the health effects of newer PFAS, including GenX, the health agency said. Some PFAS chemicals some show signs decreasing fertility, increasing cholesterol, affecting the immune system, and possibly raising the risk of cancer, though health studies on humans aren't conclusive.
"Scientists do not know how long many of these chemicals can stay in your body; therefore, we do not know how much of each chemical was in your body a year ago or what will be in your body in the future," a letter to participants said.
"These results cannot tell you if the PFAS levels in your blood or urine are related to past or current health problems. These results also cannot tell you what finding these chemicals might mean for your health later in life, even if your levels are higher than the US population."
The tests were performed on volunteers who drank from private wells that earlier testing found had the highest levels of GenX in the groundwater, the state agency said. No more than one adult and one child between 12 and 17 years old per household were included in the sample.
The lack of GenX in the neighbors tested may be because they quit drinking well water and switched to bottled water long enough that the chemical passed out of their systems, Moore said.
Only one of the 17 chemicals was found in urine, and that was one person at a level almost undetectable.