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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

November 2018

PFAS contamination spurs university research collaboration

Researchers from across North Carolina gathered at Duke University Sept. 28 for a symposium on an emerging class of contaminants called PFAS. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are persistent compounds that have been found in the environment, including drinking water. NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program currently support several research studies related to PFAS.

The symposium, “Emerging Contaminants in the Ambient Environment: Perspectives to Guide North Carolina’s Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Monitoring Network,” was held at the Washington Duke Inn in Durham.

Big efforts underway

Ferguson stands at a podium addressing the crowd Ferguson pointed out that North Carolina is no stranger to issues, with emerging contaminants such as coal ash, agricultural runoff, and most recently, flooding from Hurricane Florence. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

PFAS sparked much interest when researchers found high levels of GenX and other PFAS in the Cape Fear River in 2016. Lee Ferguson, Ph.D., an associate professor of environmental science and engineering at Duke University, said the discovery of GenX in the Cape Fear River led to conversations with lawmakers on how to address the issue of emerging contaminants.

“How do we answer the question of avoiding a situation such as with GenX?” he asked. “How do we keep this from happening again?”

Responding to the uncertainty around GenX in drinking water, the North Carolina (NC) General Assembly provided $5 million for the NC Policy Collaboratory to award grants to study GenX and other PFAS. With this funding, researchers at several universities, including NIEHS grantees, will study contamination and its effects in North Carolina.

Jason Surratt stands behind podium Surratt moderated the afternoon session and introduced the various research teams involved in the PFAST Network. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

This collaboration, called the Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substance Testing (PFAST) Network, aims to help policymakers and the public better understand human PFAS exposure. Jason Surratt, Ph.D., a professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), serves as program director of the PFAST Network.

We all live downstream

The symposium featured several PFAS researchers. Detlef Knappe, Ph.D., from North Carolina State University, highlighted how wastewater from upstream communities can greatly affect downstream drinking water.

He remarked that during times of low stream flow, such as droughts, chemicals in upstream wastewater are less diluted and can reach higher concentrations. “We all live downstream,” he said.

Chris Higgins, Ph.D., an associate professor at Colorado School of Mines, described challenges involved in studying these substances. “We’re dealing with complex mixtures and complex behavior in a complex exposure scenario,” Higgins said.

According to Higgins, drinking water is not the only potential source of PFAS exposure. “People can be directly exposed through consumer products, drinking water, or produce grown with water impacted by these compounds,” he said.

Scores of people seated at tables listening to a presenter The conference center at the Washington Duke Inn was packed with symposium attendees. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Emerging contaminants and policy

One of the highlights of the symposium was a discussion panel with legislators from the North Carolina General Assembly. Jeff Warren, Ph.D., research director for the NC Policy Collaboratory, posed questions to legislators regarding their constituents’ concerns about GenX and how the government is addressing emerging contaminants in North Carolina.

Other states and countries also face drinking water contaminated with PFAS. Gloria Post, Ph.D., a research scientist from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, discussed the New Jersey response to PFAS occurring in its environment.

Matthias Ruff, Ph.D., a research scientist with the Canton of Bern, Switzerland, told the audience how researchers monitor for contaminants in the Rhine River. Many people in Europe depend on the Rhine for its water, and Ruff showed how nontargeted monitoring enabled them to quickly detect pollution and spills in the river.

Mark Strynar speaks into a microphone Mark Strynar, Ph.D., a physical scientist who studies PFAS at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency National Exposure Research Laboratory, asked a question during the symposium. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Citation: Sun M, Arevalo E, Strynar MJ, Lindstrom AB, Richardson M, Kearns B, Pickett A, Smith C, Knappe DRU. 2016. Legacy and emerging perfluoroalkyl substances are important drinking water contaminants in the Cape Fear River watershed of North Carolina. Environ Sci Technol Lett 3(12):415–419.

(Samantha Hall, a graduate student at Duke University, is a former postbaccalaureate fellow in the National Cancer Institute Center for Cancer Research Laboratory of Toxicology and Toxicokinetics, housed at NIEHS.)


Barbara Turpin addresses the crowd from the podium Barbara Turpin, Ph.D., a professor at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, spoke about her work on air emissions and atmospheric deposition. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Jamie DeWitt shares her insight from the lecturn Jamie DeWitt, Ph.D., an associate professor at East Carolina University, studies how PFAS affects the immune system. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Mei Sun speaks from behind the podium Mei Sun, Ph.D., was one of the researchers who originally discovered GenX in the Cape Fear River. She is now an assistant professor at UNC Charlotte and evaluates PFAS removal technologies. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Five expert panelists answer questions From left, PFAST Network members DeWitt, Sun, Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, Ph.D., Turpin, and Ferguson answered questions from the audience. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
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