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EPA to Fund Study on Whether Treating Drinking Water Limits PFAS Exposure

A faucet and drinking water.

Researchers from three states currently grappling with water contaminated with poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) like GenX are joining forces to tackle one of the biggest remaining questions facing communities that have found the toxic chemicals used in stain-resistant carpets, firefighting foam, and the production of nonstick cookware lurking in their water supply.

When PFAS contaminate a drinking water source, is it enough to just treat the water people drink? Or do state and local agencies need to do more to limit residents’ exposure?

A new research project set to receive $1.96 million from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hopes to answer those questions. In doing so, researchers will develop data that can be used by state and local agencies to reduce exposure to the harmful chemicals in communities across the nation.

Led by Chris Higgins, a PFAS expert and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Colorado School of Mines, the research team includes scientists and engineers from North Carolina State University, Duke University, Michigan State University and the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Their efforts will focus on their three home states, each of which has communities significantly impacted by PFAS-contaminated drinking water.

In North Carolina, the source of the PFAS discovered in the Cape Fear River – the main drinking water source for the city of Wilmington – was a manufacturing plant upstream emitting PFAS in its fluorochemical production.

Among the specific questions that researchers plan to answer is to what extent PFAS accumulate in locally harvested foods like vegetables, fish and eggs, and more broadly, the relative contribution of drinking water and local foods to PFAS exposure in impacted communities. Further, the team will collect needed data to enable predictions of how quickly PFASs will migrate, particularly through soil into groundwater.

“In North Carolina, recently identified PFAS, such as GenX and Nafion byproducts, have been emitted into the air and water for decades. For some of the compounds, nothing is known about their migration through soil into groundwater and their uptake by plants and animals that serve as sources of food,” said co-PI Detlef Knappe, S. James Ellen Distinguished Professor of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering at NC State. “This study will allow us to develop information that will help answer important questions.”

PFAS exposure studies funded by the National Institutes of Health are already underway in Colorado and North Carolina, and the new project will leverage those existing biomonitoring cohorts, led by co-PIs John Adgate, chair of ColoradoSPH’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, and Jane Hoppin, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at NC State.

“PFAS-UNITEDD: Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substance – U.S National Investigation of Transport and Exposure from Drinking Water and Diet” is being funded through the EPA National Center for Environmental Research. The North Carolina Policy Collaboratory’s Challenge Grant fund, provided by the North Carolina General Assembly, is also contributing a $262,500 cash match, with additional in-kind contributions coming from industry partners Jacobs, CDM Smith and others.

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