NC PFAS Study: Higher Prevalence of Brain Birth Defects

An analysis of birth defects and PFAS exposure in North Carolina turned up an unexplained prevalence of brain birth defects in the five counties studied – and beyond.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services recently released an analysis of four categories of birth defects in counties known to be impacted by exposure to Gen-X and other perfluorinated chemicals and found that while the prevalence of most types of birth defects examined in the study did not differ from statewide estimates, a higher prevalence of total brain defects was found in some areas. However, the higher prevalence of total brain defects was not limited to counties where Gen-X and other PFAS have been found in drinking water.

Further, the findings concluded:

“The prevalence of neural tube defects and one specific type of cardiac defect were higher in one county each as compared to the state as a whole. However, county-level estimates were based on small numbers of cases and the prevalence varied widely from year to year.”

The PFAS family of manmade chemicals includes PFOA – the Teflon toxin used at DuPont Washington Works, Gen-X – it’s replacement, PFOS – the Scotchgard chemical, and many other compounds known for their unnatural properties. They are present in food packaging, textiles, draperies, food coverings and countless other consumer products.

Readers familiar with the story of C8 in the Mid-Ohio Valley can appreciate this timeline.  Long before the Tennants’ lost their cattle to a mysterious wasting disease, (which would lead to the discovery of C8 in water supplies surrounding DuPont Washington Works) DuPont was reacting to the startling incidence of birth defects in babies born to mothers who worked in the Teflon Division. Specifically, two babies were born with facial birth defects out of a seven babies born to women who worked there. In 1981 the company responded by removing all of the women from the Teflon Division permanently.   

However, it is worth noting that the C8 Science Panel, which linked six human health conditions to C8 exposure in the Mid-Ohio Valley, did not find a probable link to birth defects. The health conditions found to be related to C8 exposure in people who were drinking water contaminated with the industrial solvent included: kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pre-eclampsia and medically-diagnosed high cholesterol.

The North Carolina DHHS analysis of the birth defect data was performed “to address concerns raised during the state’s ongoing investigation into Gen-X and other per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also referred to as PFAS.” The report noted that there is no national data available for comparison.

“Brain and spinal cord defects, facial clefts, heart defects and skeletal defects were chosen for this analysis because they have been included in previous studies of PFAS exposure or because associations with PFAS have been suggested in studies of laboratory animals,” according to the report. “No birth defects have been definitively linked to PFAS exposure in humans. Because birth defects can be caused by a complex mix of genetic, medical, behavioral and environmental factors, no conclusions regarding links between PFAS or other exposures and birth defects can be drawn from this analysis.”

The state said it will continue to monitor geographic variations in the occurrence of birth defects and is developing plans to specifically examine the occurrence of brain anomalies across the state.

About Callie J Lyons

Callie Lyons is an investigative journalist and author living in the Mid Ohio Valley. Her first book, Stain-Resistant, Nonstick, Waterproof and Lethal: The Hidden Dangers of C8, is available at and in hundreds of libraries all over the world. Known as a "warrior for public health", Lyons' environmental investigations have been featured in documentaries, including Good Neighbors - Bad Blood and Toxic Soup, on Swedish National Television and in numbers of television, radio and print media interviews. Her work has appeared on Nova's Whiz Kids and in Mother Jones magazine. More recently, a national audience has come to know her award-winning investigative work through the Environmental Working Group and interviews with leading publications like the Huffington Post and The Intercept. Lyons' work was featured in the 2017 documentary Parched:Toxic Waters by National Geographic. The Short, Fantastic Life of a Saloon Girl is Lyons' first published work of historical fiction.
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