Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in river discharge: Modeling loads upstream and downstream of a PFAS manufacturing plant in the Cape Fear watershed, North Carolina.


The Cape Fear River is an important source of drinking water in North Carolina, and many drinking water intakes in the watershed are affected by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). We quantified PFAS concentrations and loads in river water upstream and downstream of a PFAS manufacturing plant that has been producing PFAS since 1980. River samples collected from September 2018 to February 2021 were analyzed for 13 PFAS at the upstream station and 43-57 PFAS downstream near Wilmington. Frequent PFAS sampling (daily to weekly) was conducted close to gauging stations (critical to load estimation), and near major drinking water intakes (relevant to human exposure). Perfluoroalkyl acids dominated upstream while fluoroethers associated with the plant made up about 47% on average of the detected PFAS downstream. Near Wilmington, Σ43PFAS concentration averaged 143 ng/L (range 40-377) and Σ43PFAS load averaged 3440 g/day (range 459-17,300), with 17-88% originating from the PFAS plant. LOADEST was a useful tool in quantifying individual and total quantified PFAS loads downstream, however, its use was limited at the upstream station where PFAS levels in the river were affected by variable inputs from a wastewater treatment plant. Long-term monitoring of PFAS concentrations is warranted, especially at the downstream station. Results suggest a slight downward trend in PFAS levels downstream, as indicated by a decrease in flow-weighted mean concentrations and the best-fitting LOADEST model. However, despite the cessation of PFAS process wastewater discharge from the plant in November 2017, and the phase-out of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in North America, both fluoroethers and legacy PFAS continue to reach the river in significant quantities, reflecting groundwater discharge to the river and other continuing inputs. Persistence of PFAS in surface water and drinking water supplies suggests that up to 1.5 million people in the Cape Fear watershed might be exposed.