Don’t Drink the Water, Wilmington


by Bridget Callahan

The name of the chemical is Gen X. How? Why? To make it sound like a sci-fi cliche, and therefore unbelievable? To make it harder for search engines to find anything about it, because all you get are clips from Reality Bites and thinkpieces about the ’90s? Is it deliberate?

I want to track down whoever named it Gen X, and ask him what he read as a child.

June 7th, at 10:31am, by Vaughn Hagerty, StarNews Correspondent. “Toxin taints CFPUA drinking water.”

WILMINGTON — A chemical replacement for a key ingredient in Teflon linked to cancer and a host of other ailments has been found in the drinking water system of the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA), which cannot filter it.

Known commercially as GenX, the contaminating compound is made by the Chemours Co. at Fayetteville Works, a 2,150-acre industrial site straddling the Cumberland-Bladen county line along the Cape Fear River, about 100 miles upstream from Wilmington.

Other water systems that tap the Cape Fear, including some that serve portions of Brunswick and Pender counties, likely have GenX present as well — though only CFPUA has been tested.

“My estimate is that about 250,000 people are affected in the three counties,” said Detlef Knappe, a professor at N.C. State University and one of the researchers who traced the toxin from Fayetteville to Wilmington.” – StarNews Online

The story went around the feeds fast as a cat on amphetamines, popping up again and again. At first people posted it without comment. Then with slight jokes, the kind of joking that one does when you don’t quite know how else to react. And then finally, the fear. People only feel comfortable expressing the fear once they see enough people are embracing the subject. They need to know it’s okay to join the mob. 

I can’t believe we’ve been drinking this poison.

Everybody stop drinking the water!

The tap water is full of cancer. Of course it is.

How could the city let this happen?

We can’t drink any more of the tap water, I told my roommate. We have to buy reverse osmosis water, they think that’s the best to stop it. I told her I would just fill up the jugs at work, and then look into buying an under the sink unit that I could uninstall when we left.

You can’t feed the dog tap water either, I said.

I scrolled through Amazon, looking at different water filtration systems. The new information rolling around the internet was that RO was the only thing that would stop it, because it took out everything that was larger than a water molecule and water molecules were tiny. They say it’s like how a cell wall filters out stuff, since most of the bad stuff is bigger than water. Majority of the systems were 100-150. It was a lot of money for us, and I couldn’t tell if any of them would actually work. They were all built for fish tanks really. I learned a lot about water containment. I learned the six stages of filtration, like the five stages of grief or the ten stages of genocide. I learned there was no way we could outfit the showers.

So the thing is, I said to my roommate, the thing is we can change the drinking water, but not for brushing our teeth, or the showers, or the dishwasher, or the laundry.

The next day, the tide had shifted against RO water online.

It’s bad for you! The World Health Organization said so!

It’s a scam by the RO industry!

Nothing will work, we’re all going to die!

They were quoting a study which showed that RO water took out many minerals people only got from their drinking water, because our diets are so shitty. The new age websites had a lot to say about that, since one of the major tenets of the New American Hippiedom is that water filtration has a million evil faces and only one or two safe ones. You have to use RO water. No, only Spring water. No, only Spring water from certain places. No, it had to be alkalized, to help your body’s Ph levels. No, it had to be deionized. No, it had to be re-ionized. No, it didn’t matter, as long as the water never saw the inside of a plastic container.

When I worked at the co-op, I remember someone tried to sell me on the idea of this crazy miracle water, a Christian pyramid scheme sold online. They promised to treat the water so your cells could actually absorb it, because the problem with modern water was that no one’s body ever really took advantage of it. And obviously they are right, since we’re all walking around as monstrous dehydrated zombie mummies, just shedding dried off bits of ourselves everywhere, our eyes shriveling in their sockets.

The woman who told me about it also shopped with a crystal in one hand, and when she was thinking about buying a product, she would ask you to press down on her outstretched arm, so she could feel if her body, her very cells, wanted this pack of turkey hot dogs.

A co-worker told me that RO water was bad for you because it sucked your ions out and changed your Ph levels in your body and was actually worse than drinking any water at all.

There’s just no way that’s scientifically true, I said.

No, it’s true. I read it, he said.

Don’t tell customers that, I replied.

Like the human body, water is 70% of Wilmington. The ocean, the river, the constant jungle drizzles, the suffocating fogs of humidity, the towering thunderstorms that sweep in off the Atlantic. You are wet all the time here, not just sweat but also sex and tears and rain. Everything here is so full of water, it leaks.

I went in to work at Whole Foods two days after the toxin was public. There were already threads unraveling in city and county government. The water authority was scrambling to assure people that the poison levels of Gen X were absolutely within safe EPA limits, which wasn’t reassuring to anyone because the EPA didn’t consider the chemical dangerous anyway. We were finding out new parts of the story almost hourly – a study of rat tumors dismissed, a Dutch city investigating. Cape Fear Public Utility Authority had known about this chemical in the water for three years, but never made their findings public. Chemours had been dumping it since the 80s, since the good old days when they were DuPont.

And there were all the other toxins in the water, too. Were the wells safe? Was the beer safe? Could the average citizen just run a hose line down into the deep dark aquifer? The message boards filled up with people asking for homeopathic ways to detox, people praising miracle cures, people crying over a child who had died of cancer two years ago and wondering if it was related.

It was the middle of a 90 degree, 100% humidity Southern summer. You breathed water. Half of the people shook their heads and mumbled stuff about it being too late, they had already been drinking it, so fuck it. People snidely made remarks about how certain other people who smoked shouldn’t pretend to give a shit. The rest of us drank less and less water, emergency rations so the precious reserves in our fridges didn’t run out. Our hangovers got worse. The RO water tasted like shit, like nothing, like what’s left after nothing has been removed.

At work, the plastic gallons of water sold out. The refillable jugs were going fast. The story ordered two huge displays of one gallon and 2.5 gallon jugs, right between produce and bulk, which is just right on the first circuit of a shopping trip. I lugged four gallons home. They sat on our kitchen counter like we were in the middle of a national emergency. An asteroid or a hurricane. Beasts.

People who owned houses spent hundreds of dollars to outfit their whole house. People who had no money continued to do nothing, because they couldn’t. There are three or four public RO dispensers in town, and all of them out by the nice houses.

I don’t know what we should do, my roommate said. We were tired, both late home from work, and we sat on the couch like dolls that had been dropped haphazardly when done being played with.

Like, even if we change our drinking water, it’s in the shower. It’s the water that all the local breweries use. It’s the water they cook with at restaurants. It’s ice. And then if that’s all fixed, there’s the flame retardant on our couches that we lay on, and our mattresses, and air deodorizers and smog and corn syrup, lead and fluoride and cell phones and we’re just going to die no matter what. Everything we touch and eat and breathe is poison. I haven’t felt this hopeless since the day after Trump was elected, I said.

 I’ve never felt it before. Now twice in one year.

Has anyone told the Spanish speakers? she asked.

We started to have to refill the water display every hour at the store.

We got an email from the store manager, telling us what we were and were not allowed to say.

There was a city council meeting, in the big hall downtown where, in the 1800s, old white men met to plan elections and coups. The people attending filled up the big council chamber, and then the overflow chamber where they streamed the meeting. I didn’t make it inside; we got there too late and instead hung outside the entrance door with the people handing out homemade flyers.

There was a certain pattern of conversation. You said hi, and like a clockwork machine turning on, they slowly vented every fact they knew about Gen X and the water and Chemours and everything they had just learned, and what someone else had said who was a scientist of some sort. It obviously made them feel better to repeat the litany, gave them control. There was never a good way for me to stop them to say hey, listen, I’ve been reading the exact same Facebook posts as you for the last week. I know absolutely everything you’re telling me already.

There was no way to do that, so after the fifth time having the same conversation, I left.

The council passed a resolution, a useless but meaningful show of support. That same hour, Chemours announced they would voluntarily stop the dumping, and later in the same hour, (what an hour, what a clusterfuck of official channels),  the official EPA press release came out – the state was opening an investigation, and Chemours would be held accountable to stop dumping that next day. They would be tested in three weeks to see if it had been effective. Why Chemours made their announcement, of course. What sent their PR lackies scrambling.

But it was too late. We had spent weeks learning what a PFOA was. We had learned molecules came in strings. How many parts per trillion were safe, and what an EPA consent order was, and most importantly, we had already learned to not trust what was being said. Who was paying for and conducting the inspections, we said? How can we ever trust them to tell us the truth? What are they going to do about all these other horrible things we know are in the water now? You cannot put fear back in a box, Pandora.

It makes one feel on the edge of things, when there is no stable ground or safe water anymore.

The benefit of moving to a small beach town is supposed to be everything is cleaner, safer than in the cities. Healthier. More virtuous. That’s why you give up job markets and city buses, right? No, that’s wrong.  The rural places are the most dangerous. They’re the places where chemicals plants go to hide – places with small populations. Rivers to churn the waste hundreds of miles away. Voters who care more about preserving the one job their son can have than the faraway ideas of future and cancer. No one finding out because they aren’t asking.

I lived my life in an urban wasteland. My cells should be lead-lined and ash by now, and immune to everything. I swim in Lake Erie, swallow its run-off water, and don’t die. No disease should be able to touch me. But the poisons, they’ve gotten smaller. Smaller than water molecules.

So we think of, move in, dream of water, but don’t drink it.


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