Ark Strynar and Andrew Lindstrom walked down the muddy bank of the Cape Fear River toward the water, sampling equipment in hand. It was the summer of 2012, and the scientists, who both work for the Environmental Protection Agency, were taking the first steps in what would be more than two years of detective work.
The Cape Fear winds its way for over 200 miles through North Carolina before flowing into the Atlantic, but Strynar and Lindstrom were focused on a 20-mile stretch that runs from a boat dock outside Fayetteville south to the little town of Tar Heel. About halfway between the two points, on the western bank of the river, sits a large plant built by DuPont.
Fayetteville Works, as the sprawling site is called, previously manufactured C8, a chemical that DuPont used for more than 50 years to make Teflon and other products. After a massive class-action lawsuit revealed evidence of C8’s links to cancer and other diseases, DuPont agreed in a deal with the EPA to phase out its use of the chemical.
But Strynar and Lindstrom were among many scientists who feared that DuPont and the other companies that used C8 might have swapped it out for similar compounds with similar problems. To see if they were right — and whether any of these replacements might have ended up in the river — they took water samples from the Cape Fear, some upstream the plant, others from points below its outflow.
Perfluorooctanoic acid, commonly known as PFOA or C8, is a “perfluorinated” chemical, which means that its base includes carbon chains attached to fluorine atoms. Because the fluorine-carbon bond is one of the strongest in chemistry, these compounds are incredibly stable, which makes them useful in industry. But that stability also makes them endure in the environment.
Indeed, C8, which has recently been detected in upstate New York, in Vermont, and in Michigan’s Flint River, among other places, is expected to remain on the earth long after humans are extinct. And evidence suggests that many of its replacements are just as persistent.
The potential permanence of the problem was only one reason the EPA team was mucking around on the banks of the Cape Fear River. There were short-term dangers, too. Strynar and Lindstrom knew well that the Cape Fear is a source of drinking water and that if perfluorinated chemicals — known as PFCs — had contaminated the river, they would soon make their way into human bodies.
Strynar had spent eight years documenting the presence of these molecules in fish, food, air, house dust, and humans. Lindstrom, an expert on measuring PFCs in the environment who has worked for the EPA for more than two decades, had also been documenting the steady proliferation of the chemicals.
Both knew that the potential for contamination around the plant was great, because C8 had spread into the water around many of the facilities that made and used it, including plants in West Virginia, Minnesota, New Jersey, Alabama, Germany, and Japan. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, 99.7 percent of Americans already had C8 in their blood.
What Lindstrom and Strynar didn’t know was exactly what DuPont had used to replace C8 and whether it was escaping the plant. The river water was their key to finding out. By comparing the samples from above and below the plant’s outflow, they could determine which chemicals may have entered the river at that point.
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