Health officials encouraging some residents to talk with physicians about exposure risks

Map from the Health Consultation report on a well in Old Fort, dated March 28, 2013.
Health officials will hold a meeting today (Thursday, April 25) on the results of a public health investigation of contamination of the town’s water system that was identified in the 1980s. This map, from the Health Consultation report dated March 28, 2013, shows the location of Old Fort Finishing, which donated a well to the town that was later discovered to contain trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene. It is no longer connected to the town’s water system.

Some people who lived in Old Fort between 1984 and 1988 may have been exposed to levels of hazardous chemicals in their drinking water that may increase their chances of developing non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, kidney or liver cancer, according to a report recently released by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

State health representatives will hold an information session at the Old Fort First Baptist Church Fellowship Hall at 203 E. Main Street today (Thursday, April 25) from 3 to 7 p.m. to present the results of a public health investigation into contamination of the town’s water system that was identified during the mid-1980s.

The most recent investigation was conducted by DHHS and other health officials, including the Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch and the Epidemiology Section of the state Division of Public Health. (Read the Health Consultation report, dated March 28, 2013, below.)

Old Fort Elementary. Photo via the Health Assessment report, dated March 28, 2013.
Old Fort Elementary. Photo via the Health Consultation report, dated March 28, 2013.

The initial evaluation was prompted by a citizen who feared that students and staff at nearby Old Fort Elementary School were exposed to chemicals related to the Old Fort Finishing industrial site that were found in groundwater and moved through the air and the sewer system. The school is located within 1,000 feet of the former industrial site.

Part of the issue stems from the fact that the town of Old Fort relies on four municipal wells to provide drinking water.

A well, which has since been removed from the town’s water system, was owned by United Merchants and Manufacturing Company, which operated the Old Fort Finishing plant, a textile-manufacturing site, from 1947 to 1984.

The well was donated to the town of Old Fort after the plant closed, and it is estimated, according to the report, that the well was connected to the municipal water system for about 2.5 years. Samples were collected at the well in December 1987 and tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene concentrations exceeded recommended levels in samples, according to the report.

Tetrachloroethylene is a chemical widely used for dry cleaning and for metal-degreasing operations. Trichloroethylene is a liquid used as a solvent to remove grease from metal parts. It may also be found as a component of household products such as paint removers, adhesives, carpet cleaners and spot removers.

In January 1988, the town was instructed by the Division of Public Health not to use that well for drinking water.

Trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene levels exceeded recommended levels in three additional private drinking water wells that were later identified and sampled in the fall of 1989.

Residents were instructed at that time not to drink the water and were connected to the municipal water system.

A 2010 report concluded there was no apparent health hazard.

However, the recent investigation looked into additional concerns about potential airborne chemical exposures and about contamination from trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene from a nearby former dry cleaning operation, Nichols Laundry and Dry Cleaning, which operated about 700 feet from the school. It closed about 10 years ago, and two businesses, a Laundromat and a flower and gift shop, now occupy the building.

While the public health agencies concluded from the samplings that the increased risk of cancer from drinking the water is low, they are encouraging individuals over the age of 25 who lived in Old Fort and drank municipal water during the four year period in the mid-1980s to talk with their physicians about potential risks of exposure. Population data show that more than 700 people lived in Old Fort in 1990.

“Our goal is to inform the public of a risk that may have occurred in the 1980s so that individuals can talk with their health care providers,” State Health Director Laura Gerald said in a news release. “Any knowledge about potential exposure can help health care providers make more informed recommendations regarding lifestyle changes, health screenings and treatment.”

Public health and DENR officials will be available to answer questions at the public information session.

“We encourage citizens to come to the public meeting to ask any questions they may have,” Old Fort Mayor Garland Norton said in the release.  “We will stay as long as necessary to make sure our residents are well informed.”

The Epidemiology Section of the Division of Public Health will request an updated analysis of the types of cancer and cancer rates for the community from the Central Cancer Registry and the results of the analysis will be shared with the community, according to the news release.

The report and additional documents on the investigation can be found on the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Division of Public Health website at

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Peggy Manning is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at

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  2. TCE and PCE contamination has been monitored since the mid-90’s at the Buncombe County Schools Administrative Offices/former Square D plant. A portion of the building will soon be renovated ($5.5 million) into a STEM High School. Parents do not know that monitoring wells about 600 feet away contain high levels of TCE and PCE. If the contaminants are migrating toward the building, vapor intrusion could eventually be a problem.

    Breathing TCE and PCE are just as bad as drinking contaminated water (per the EPA) – all routes of exposure increase cancer risk and non-cancerous disease risk. Women of child-bearing age run the risk of heart defects in unborn babies.

    The other Square D plant across the street from the BCS central office has vapor intrusion problems and NC DENR is now investigating the issue.