Seeking Clean Water

ECU’s Jamie DeWitt is a national leader in PFAS research

Jamie DeWitt sat confidently at a large wooden table, an ECU pin shining from her lapel, when the microphone in front of her turned on and the cameras started rolling.

It was one of the two times DeWitt, an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at ECU’s Brody School of Medicine, testified before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee in 2019. She was no stranger to speaking in front of crowds or cameras, as she is regularly invited to give scientific talks at meetings across the country and is called upon almost weekly for interviews by journalists from all over the world.

But DeWitt was still terrified.

“I am not one of those scientists who seeks the spotlight. I got into science because I think science is awesome and because I wanted to make the planet better for other people who live on the planet and share space with me,” DeWitt said. “Every day I go into a classroom to teach, I’m terrified. Every time I have to speak to a reporter, I have a fear inside of me that I’m going to say something wrong, I’m going to look stupid or I’m not going to answer the question the right way.”

That fear drives her to want to be better, DeWitt said. But the message she has to deliver — the human health risks of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances — is her ultimate motivator.

PFAS are human-made chemicals – such as PFOA, PFOS and GenX — that have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries for more than 70 years. Used to make nonstick and water or grease-resistant household products, including pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, Teflon pans, firefighting foams, stain-proof carpets and weather gear, they are also found in industrial facilities, drinking water and food grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or processed with equipment that used PFAS.

Research by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry indicates certain PFAS may affect the growth and development of infants and children, interfere with the body’s natural hormones, affect the immune system and increase the risk of liver, pancreatic, thyroid and testicular cancer in animals, as well as other diseases.

“I have developed this overwhelming sense of responsibility,” DeWitt said. “I’ve met people who are afraid for their lives and their children’s lives, their pets’ lives and the lives of others in their families because of their exposure to PFAS. They want answers to the questions they have on the health effects of exposure to PFAS and other types of emerging contaminants. That sense of responsibility is a greater driver than my own individual fear of speaking in public.”

Even though PFAS have been around for decades, scientists did not find the connection between the chemicals and harmful health effects until relatively recently.

“Just because we’re now discovering PFAS in all of these environmental media doesn’t mean that they haven’t been responsible for diseases all along. What we’re starting to appreciate are the linkages between exposure and disease,” DeWitt said. “Scientists who study health effects are always going to be years to decades behind the contaminants that are released out into the environment. That is the unfortunate reality of how our system works. We rely on chemists to be the detectives, to find the compound, and then toxicologists and epidemiologists come in and start to make the linkages.”

Concern about PFAS in North Carolina has skyrocketed since 2017, after the Wilmington Star News reported that GenX was found in the Cape Fear River in relatively high concentrations. Other communities across the state, including Fayetteville and Hope Mills in Cumberland County and Pittsboro in Chatham County, have also made headlines recently after PFAS were detected in their water supplies.

What are PFAS?

PFAS is a group of industrial, human-made chemicals. They are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down easily in humans, animals, or the environment. A number of PFAS studies have shown they can potentially harm human health.

Infographics provided courtesy of the North Carolina PFAS Testing Network


What are the sources of PFAS in water?

These sources contribute PFAS into our drinking water.

  • PFAS from other upstream sources
  • firefighting foam from military bases, airports, and other sources
  • products containing PFAS in landfill
  • wastewater contaminating PFAS
  • manufacturing emissions which contain PFAS
  • land applications of biosolids containing PFAS

“When we think about PFAS, it’s not just one chemical. As far as we know, it’s more than 5,000 individual chemicals,” DeWitt said. “PFAS are being found in almost all sources. It’s gotten to the point if we go out and collect samples, we’re going to find PFAS. And it’s not just in water, it’s in air and it’s in other types of environmental media — soil, dust, flowers, honey. They’re so persistent, which means they don’t break down, and they’re able to travel anywhere.”

DeWitt has been studying the immunotoxicity of PFAS since 2005 and is part of a collaborative with investigators at N.C. State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, UNC-Wilmington, UNC-Charlotte, North Carolina A&T and Duke University that is studying the health effects of the substances.

“In my laboratory, we’re trying to understand the molecular pathways by which PFAS change the immune system,” DeWitt said. “We need to understand those molecular pathways before we can ask questions about other PFAS. Because we know a lot about a relatively small number when you consider that there’s more than 5,000 individual PFAS.”

As the list of communities affected by PFAS contamination grows, so too have the requests for DeWitt’s time and expertise.

“Oh look! There’s a day that doesn’t have something on it!” she joked while looking at her schedule for February, which even had her weekends filled with work-related tasks.

But DeWitt still accommodated yet another request for an interview and photo shoot — this one for the day after she returned from a PFAS-focused meeting in Brussels.

“I think we’re at a very critical tipping point where we have to make decisions about what PFAS, if any, we’re going to continue to allow being used in products and processes. We’re also at a point where we have to determine if regulations are necessary or not,” she said. “There will likely be more communities in this state that learn they have contamination. The distribution and the concentrations vary, but they’re there. And we can’t treat them away; we can only filter them away.”

“PFAS are being found in almost all sources. It’s gotten to the point if we go out and collect samples, we’re going to find PFAS … it’s in air and it’s in other types of environmental media — soil, dust, flowers, honey. They’re so persistent … and they’re able to travel anywhere.”

Jamie DeWitt, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at ECU’s Brody School of Medicine

PFAS and human health

The health effects of several different types of PFAS have been studied in both humans and animals. Some of these studies have shown that exposure to PFAS can have consequences on health. However, many of the health effects of PFAS are still unknown. Due to this, research is still ongoing to determine how exposure to PFAS can impact human health.

What are the health effects of PFAS?

Human studies suggest PFAS exposure may…
in adults
  • increase risk of thyroid disease
  • increase blood cholesterol levels
  • decrease the body’s response to vaccines
in pregnant women
  • decrease fertility in women
  • increase risk of high blood pressure & preeclampsia
in children
  • lower infant birth weight
Animal studies suggest PFAS exposure is linked to…
  • damage to the immune system
  • liver damage
  • birth defects, delayed development, and newborn deaths

Information sourced from Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry | Additional health effects have been reported and those highlighted demonstrate a range of potential effects.