Question: Is local tap water safe to drink in North Carolina?
Short Answer: It's a difficult question to answer quickly. North Carolina has almost 6,000 public water systems and countless private wells spread across 100 counties. Plus, not everyone agrees on what qualifies as safe.
Many local officials say their tap water is acceptable to drink, as modern treatment techniques rid natural water of harmful contaminants to meet federal health standards.
But others argue these decades-old standards haven’t kept pace with modern research around water safety. Recent reporting has illuminated the prevalence of “forever chemicals” like PFAS polluting some of North Carolina’s interconnected drinking water sources. For now, these emergent contaminants remain unregulated.
And millions of North Carolinians get their tap water from private wells which are even less regulated than public utilities and therefore at greater risk for undetected contamination, experts say.
Perhaps now more than ever, it’s best to closely monitor and truly understand what’s in your drinking water. And there are ways for residents to check.
Longer Answer: The water that comes out of most North Carolina taps is regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which currently sets mandatory limits on 94 contaminants in drinking water.
Having small amounts of contaminants, the EPA notes, is common in most drinking water, even bottled water. For example, the federal agency allows tap water to have up to 10 parts per billion of arsenic.
Long-term exposure to higher levels of contaminants can cause health issues, the EPA states. Some water safety advocates would like North Carolina to enact its own, stricter maximum contaminant limits. For example, the non-profit organization Clean Water for North Carolina wants the state to half the permitted amount of arsenic.
Around three-quarters of North Carolinians are connected to public water systems. To rid contaminants, these systems pass billions of gallons of natural water through an array of techniques at water treatment facilities. These steps may include chlorination, pH adjustments, and the addition of fluoride to ward off tooth decay.
During flocculation, a technique used in Asheville, Fayetteville, and elsewhere, a compound is introduced to the water which latches onto contaminants and sinks them to the bottom, allowing cleaner water above to float onward.
“We're very proud of our water,” said City of Asheville spokesperson Polly McDaniel. “It's a big source of civic pride for the City.”
McDaniel said she drinks local tap water with confidence.
After testing water, local utilities will send their results to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, which posts the data on its Drinking Water Watch portal. The Drinking Water Watch also lists past and current violations levied against every local water system.
Officials encourage residents also read the annual water quality reports released by their local utilities.
“Every year when they send out their listing of how the water measures up against the limits, I look,” said Bill Ross, a former secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (now the Department of Environmental Quality).
Ross lives in Orange County and said he is comfortable drinking tap water, as long as he checks his local report.
But just because water meets current health standards doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe to drink says Heather Stapleton, a professor at the Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment who researches chemical contaminants in drinking water.
“When we do find out a chemical is problematic and the primary exposure (to humans) is from drinking water, it takes years to implement new standards,” Stapleton said. Most of the EPA's current maximum contamination limits were set in the 1980s and 1990s, and the federal agency last updated its primary drinking water regulations in 2013.
In North Carolina and beyond, there are growing worries over emergent contaminants, compounds found in water that don't yet have mandatory federal limits.
The most well-known of these emerging contaminants are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, a family of man-made chemicals used in everyday products like nonstick cookware and fast-food packaging.
PFAS contain “one of the strongest bonds in chemistry,” says Jamie DeWitt, a professor of pharmacology & toxicology at East Carolina University. Such strong bonds present a challenge for local community water systems.
“Our water treatment facilities were really never designed to treat chemical contaminants,” DeWitt said. “They were designed to eliminate, for lack of a better term, fecal matter from our water. So, they were designed to kill and remove pathogens.”
The strong bonds in PFAS also mean they don’t easily break down once consumed, earning them the label “forever chemicals.” Research has connected PFAS and other emergent contaminants to health risks like liver damage, decreased fertility, and cancer.
“Everywhere scientists have looked, they’ve been able to find (PFAS),” DeWitt said.
Because North Carolina draws a high portion of its drinking water from natural waterways like rivers and lakes, Stapleton said chemical discharges in one part of the state often introduce contaminants to water supplies of communities downstream.
In 2017, the Wilmington StarNews reported that the Chemours plant in Cumberland County (formerly owned by DuPont) had for decades released PFAS that entered the Cape Fear River, a source of drinking water for many Southeast North Carolina areas.
More recently, a water treatment facility around Greensboro was discovered to have released the emergent contaminant Dioxane 1,4 into a nearby river. Dioxane 1,4, a likely carcinogen according to the EPA, was subsequently discovered in tap water in the town of Pittsboro, 45 miles to the southeast.
'Lagging behind other states'
The federal government has issued non-enforceable health advisories for certain PFAS chemicals, and the current administration hopes to establish legally-binding regulations.
Several states have enacted their own mandatory PFAS limits. North Carolina isn't one.
“In my opinion, North Carolina is lagging behind other states, yet we have a significant problem with PFAS,” said Stapleton of Duke University.
Those who study chemical contaminants bring unique approaches to their tap water.
After Stapleton recently discovered PFAS in her own tap water, she installed a reverse osmosis system underneath her tank, which she said is the best-known way to filter out the chemicals. Jamie DeWitt of East Carolina University said she continues to drink tap water but tries to limit her potential exposure to chemical contaminants in other ways, such as eating organically. Both researchers acknowledged their approaches aren't affordable to all North Carolinians.
Overall, both researchers encouraged residents be bold when it comes to their taps.
“Don't be afraid to ask questions,” Stapleton said. “Sometimes there are things in our tap water that we're not aware of that could be potentially harmful or increase our risk for certain chronic diseases. Just be aware and ask questions.”
What to know about private well water
Researchers estimate approximately 2.4 million North Carolina residents rely on private wells, not public systems, for their tap water.
Private wells are not regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, which experts say can make them particularly vulnerable to contaminants. According to North Carolina law, wells built before 2008 never have to be tested while those built after are only required to be tested once when they’re first constructed.
“There's no requirement on the state level to ever test the well again,” said Maria Savasta-Kennedy, a professor at the UNC School of Law who heads the school’s Well Water Pro Bono Project. “You might have this assumption that the water is safe because the state approved it initially, but what is in the water can change.”
When local officials designed public water systems, some purposefully excluded Black residents, Savasta-Kennedy said, which made private wells the primary way many minority neighborhoods received water.
Savasta-Kennedy recommends those who use private wells get their water tested each year. To help pay for these tests, she highlighted state and county-level funding programs.
Brian Gordon is a statewide reporter with the USA Today Network in North Carolina. Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @skioutbriout.
This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: How safe is NC tap water? Does it have PFAS? Is well water safe?