April 21, 2018

Federal action on chemicals seems to be slowing, even as the number we encounter daily grows. With the Trump administration seemingly getting the federal government out of the business of cleaning up the environment, states will have to show the way. Before President Trump was elected, Massachusetts, California and Maine led the charge, regulating certain toxic substances that the federal government had let slip by. Now Washington State has moved to the fore in this fight.

When DuPont introduced GenX, in 2009, the company promoted it as a sustainable alternative to PFOA. The new chemical, which is based on a chain of six rather than eight carbons, does exit the human body more quickly than PFOA. But like PFOA, GenX is a “forever chemical,” expected to persist on the planet long after humans are gone. According to studies DuPont submitted to the E.P.A., GenX had many of the same effects on lab animals that PFOA did, including changes in the size and weight of animals’ livers and kidneys, alterations to their immune responses and cholesterol levels, weight gain, reproductive problems and cancer.

I found those studies about GenX in an E.P.A. database almost two years ago. Since then, GenX has been detected in the drinking water of more than 200,000 people in North Carolina. Their water comes from the Cape Fear River, where another factory first owned by DuPont and later Chemours emitted its chemical waste for years. GenX has also recently been found in the groundwater near the same West Virginia plant that caused the PFOA contamination. Testing is underway to see whether it is also in drinking water there.

While researchers are now turning their attention to the health effects of GenX, it will take years to amass enough information to fully understand it. Even if scientists were to quickly catalog its effects, GenX is only one chemical. Recent water testing near the same Chemours plant in North Carolina found that GenX made up a small portion of the PFAS chemicals. Other related compounds have yet to be named, let alone studied or regulated.

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