By Steve Devane, Fayetteville Observer

FAYETTEVILLE — John and Merle Stevens haven’t eaten collards from their garden since Thanksgiving dinner.

“I quit giving them to my neighbors, and I quit eating them,” John said.

The couple in southern Cumberland County says they worry that a potentially cancer causing chemical might be in the leafy vegetable they’ve grown and enjoyed since they moved to their home on N.C. 87 about 33 years ago.

“We’re afraid of the GenX,” Merle said.

So far, nobody knows whether GenX may have been contaminating crops and livestock for years around the Chemours plant, where the compound is made. The facility is about a mile from the Stevenses’ house, off N.C. 87 at the Bladen-Cumberland county line, in a rural area surrounded by thousands of acres of farms in every direction. The potential harm of GenX in humans isn’t known; it has been linked to several forms of cancer in animal studies. The compound is used to make nonstick cookware and other products.

The state started investigating Chemours in June after the Wilmington Star-News reported that researchers had published information the previous year that showed the compound had been found in the Cape Fear River. The company agreed to stop discharging GenX into the river, but the chemical has since been discovered in more than 280 private wells around the plant, including more than 150 at levels above the state’s provisional health goal. It also has been found in two lakes near the plant and a creek.

The Stevenses have stopped drinking water from their well, which tests showed had a level of GenX just below the state’s provisional health goal.

Last month, state officials announced GenX has been detected in rainwater around the Chemours plant, lending weight to investigators’ belief that the compound has been airborne around the facility and raising the possibility that it might have found its way into crops grown in the area. In addition to private gardens and produce for roadside stands, corn and soybeans are prominent in fields around the plant.

Officials with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension say they don’t have much information about GenX and the potential contamination of crops.

Lisa Childers, director of the Cumberland County Extension office, said staff there have not received many requests for information about the compound.

“We stand ready to help concerned farmers and other people with questions on this topic, but can’t provide any information or guidance until the state or federal agencies collect and analyze the appropriate samples and provide the health interpretation for us,” she said.

Gregory Cope, a professor of applied ecology and environmental toxicology at N.C. State University, said the school refers questions on GenX in crops to the state Department of Environmental Quality or Department of Health and Human Services.

“We really can’t provide any guidance or information on that until state and federal agencies collect and analyze those samples and, more importantly, interpret what those data mean,” he said.

The Stevenses aren’t the only ones concerned. Mike Watters, who lives in a neighborhood near the plant, has talked with hundreds of residents who live in the area.

“I know a lot of people plan on not having gardens this year,” he said.

So far, no state or federal agency is specifically looking at whether there’s GenX in the crops around Chemours. Without tests of the produce, it’s impossible to know whether there’s enough of the chemical in the vegetables to be harmful. But previous research of compounds similar to GenX indicates that fears might be well-founded.

Cobey Culton, a DHHS spokesman, said state officials do not have information about how GenX may be taken up into crops. Limited information is available about similar compounds, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and more commonly called by their PFAS acronym, he said.

“We do know that PFAS can be taken up into plant tissue, but PFAS levels in crops vary based on many factors, including crop type, PFAS chain length, soil type and other environmental factors,” Culton said.

For example, some researchers have found that the chemical makeup of the compound and certain characteristics of a plant influence the amount of substances found in particular fruits and vegetables.

Culton said state officials will continue to learn more.

“There are currently no recommendations against eating local produce,” he said.

Michael Scott, director of DEQ’s Division of Waste Management, said tests are being run on soil from the Chemours property and the air from the company’s smokestacks. Those tests likely will determine whether state officials decide to test soil on private property around the plant, he said.

State officials realize there are many unanswered questions about GenX, Scott said. DEQ, DHHS and the state’s Department of Agriculture are working together, he said.

“We’re rapidly trying to find these answers,” he said. “Everybody is stepping up to the plate to try to answer these questions.”

Scott said state officials also are studying research done in other states, including a report from Minnesota’s Department of Health. The September 2014 study looked at fruits and vegetables grown in soil contaminated with compounds similar to GenX.

Researchers in Minnesota determined that the health benefits of growing and eating homegrown produce “greatly outweigh any potential risk” from low levels of the compounds in the produce.

For John and Merle Stevens and others who live near the Bladen County plant, the question is whether the levels of GenX are low enough to reach a similar conclusion.

Another avenue of research for the state is from a Dutch study of vegetables around a Chemours plant in the Netherlands.

Scientists from that country talked to North Carolina’s Science Advisory Board in January about the study.

The Dutch scientists said carrots, beets, lettuce and other vegetables at 10 sites around the Chemours plant there were tested. About 60 percent did not have GenX or another compound called PFOA, but those grown closer to the plant had both, they said. PFOA is an acronym for perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as C8.

The compounds also were found in grass and leaves around the Chemours plant in the Netherlands, according to the scientists.

Jacob de Boer, a scientist in the Netherlands, presented information about that study at a Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry meeting in November. He said the presence of PFOA in grass and leaves several years after the plant stopped using the compound shows that the chemical most likely worked its way into the plants through the soil and roots.

“The release of GenX to the atmosphere and surface water causes increasing concentrations in vegetation and drinking water,” he said.

The Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit organization that seeks to protect people from toxic chemicals, studied how compounds similar to GenX are used to make some products.

The group tested plates, bowls, clamshells and multi-compartment food trays.

The findings: 58 percent contained the compounds.

Ansje Miller, director of policy and partnerships for the center, said the compounds aren’t adequately regulated.

“As a result, millions of Americans could be ingesting a chemical that many experts believe has no safe exposure level,” she said.

Christopher Higgins, an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, conducted research on the presence of compounds similar to GenX in vegetables. Two studies looked at whether the compounds could get into the produce grown in soil that has sludge with the compounds, while the other looked at crops grown with water that had the compounds in it.

The research showed that the compounds could work their way through roots into the crops in either case. Higgins said it’s difficult to say which of the compounds he tested is similar to GenX, but he would expect it to behave like the others.

“It would not surprise me in the least if something like GenX was making its way into plants,” he said.

Higgins said tests should look at whether GenX is in crops and produce grown around the Chemours facility.

“It’s a very good question to be asking,” he said. “It’s a reasonable question to be asking.”

The level of GenX in the plants would be revealing, Higgins said.

“It still very well could be considered safe to be consuming that produce,” he said.