Updated May 9, 2021
The Guardian newspaper recently ran a story on Pittsboro’s water quality ("A town’s water is contaminated with ‘forever chemicals'"). The story was also reported in Consumer Reports, which had combined with the Guardian to investigate the issue. The local newspaper, Chatham News and Record, provided a comprehensive overview.
It’s a year-old tale about the troublesome level of contaminants in the Haw River, the source of Pittsboro’s drinking water, and how the city will have to develop ways to protect its residents against unsafe levels of exposure. To summarize briefly, water in Pittsboro contains PFAS, a dangerous carcinogen, at something like 80 times the amount of what experts say should be found.
Many Fearrington Villagers are asking, is our water similarly affected? Is it safe to drink? In answer to the first question, "No, we use county water, taken from Jordan Lake." The Haw drains into the Cape Fear River just below the Jordan Lake reservoir.
In answer to the second question, County Commissioner Karen Howard stated, "County water … has not been impacted by the identified contaminants in Pittsboro's drinking water ... We are, however, aware of the potential risks to Jordan Lake and are working with our partners who also source water from there (Wake, Cary and Durham) to ensure that proper measures are in place to protect the drinking supply of some 750,000 North Carolinians. It will take collaboration and vigilance to stay ahead of emerging contaminants and we are committed to keeping our water safe."
Chatham County maintains an up-to-date report on the quality of its water on its website. This report is a useful reference for anyone who is concerned about the safety of our water.
—Therese St. Peter
Notes added after the above information was posted: The statement that the Haw River drains into the Cape Fear River just below Jordan Lake is correct, but misleading. Before it drains into the Cape Fear, it meets the lower (southern) end of the reservoir, not far from the dam. Most of the water in Jordan Lake comes from the watershed of New Hope Creek, very little from the watershed of the Haw. Under certain conditions, however, such as heavy flooding, the waters of the Haw can back up into the reservoir. Nevertheless, when this happens there is a large increase in the volume of water in the reservoir, leading to a greater dilution of chemicals in the water (see report prepared by the NC Policy Collaboratory at UNC Chapel Hill).
Chatham County purchases much of its raw water from the town of Cary, using the Jordan Lake Water Treatment Plant about 7 miles north of the dam. At this point, due to road causeways and natural features, contaminants in the water are different from those found in the southern segment, where the Haw joins the reservoir. Nevertheless, tests of this water are of special concern to residents of Fearrington. The tests have found evidene of PFAS compounds, but the concentration is significantly less than federally established health advisory levels. By contrast, studies of the Haw River have sometimes found PFAS levels as high as 100 times the advisory value.
Of course, PFAS is not the only contaminant that is potentially dangerous to human health. For example, the NC Policy Collaboratory report contains detailed information about levels of nitrogen and phosphorous. As Karen Howard noted, it requires constant monitoring to preserve to safety of local water supplies.
You can find information about the testing of Jordan Lake water online, including test results for PFAS contamination.