August 10, 2021
You’ve likely already been exposed to PFAS chemicals.
PFAS — short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are found in some food, water-repellant fabrics and non-stick cookware, plus many other common products. Studies in animals have linked the chemicals to decreased fertility and low birth weight, developmental delays, liver and kidney damage, and tumors — but their health effects in humans are largely unknown.
In recent years, researchers uncovered high concentrations of the chemicals in drinking water sources across the United States, including in eastern North Carolina, raising concerns about potential health effects in communities where the chemicals were found.
In an effort to shed light on this concerning scientific question, researchers with the PFAS Testing (PFAST) Network have submitted a comprehensive report to the North Carolina General Assembly. The findings are available for public review, and they include a set of recommendations for future monitoring efforts, research studies and regulations to keep state residents safe.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies PFAS as “a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX and many other chemicals […] that are very persistent in the environment and in the human body — meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time.” PFAS have been used in a variety of industries since the 1940s, including as flame retardants.
The research highlighted in the PFAST Network report began in July 2018, when scientists with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill began coordinating the Network — a collaboration of 100+ members from six UNC system universities and Duke University. Their work was supported by an allocation of $5 million from the North Carolina General Assembly via the NC Policy Collaboratory.
The PFAST Network was charged with informing: 1) state regulators and policymakers about sources and levels of PFAS, with a focus on public water supplies; 2) environmental strategies for reducing or eliminating PFAs exposures; and 3) public understanding of the toxic effects of PFAS in humans.
Researchers visited hundreds of sites around the state to collect water samples and focused on five sites to collect air samples. They climbed high to place collection devices, dug deep to extract groundwater, tested human placentas in the lab and even wrangled wild alligators for blood samples.
“There is a tremendous amount of valuable information in this report,” said Professor Barbara Turpin, PhD, chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and co-leader of the PFAST Network’s Air Emissions and Atmospheric Deposition team. “While the fieldwork varied dramatically, the goal was always the same: gathering data to create a bigger picture of what we know about PFAS. The greatest strength of the Network is that leading PFAS experts from multiple North Carolina universities worked together for the benefit of the state.”
The UNC-Chapel Hill Project Management Team was made up of Professor Jason Surratt, PhD; [former] Assistant Professor Wanda Bodnar, PhD; and Business Services Coordinator Manal Khan, MPA, all in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the Gillings School.
Other team co-leaders from the Gillings School are: Associate Professor Orlando Coronell, PhD, with PFAS Removal Performance Testing; Rebecca Fry, PhD, Carol Remmer Angle Distinguished Professor in Children’s Environmental Health, with Applied Research Opportunities; and Center for Public Engagement with Science Director Kathleen Gray, PhD, with Communications.
“We have taken seriously the responsibility of conducting informative, trustworthy and salient PFAS research to meet expectations of the State of North Carolina and its taxpayers,” Surratt said. “The final report is an important document that can inform environmental and public health policy decisions for our state and beyond.”
The seven collaborating institutes in the PFAS Testing Network are: UNC-Chapel Hill; UNC-Charlotte; UNC-Wilmington; North Carolina State University; East Carolina University; North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University; and Duke University.
Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at firstname.lastname@example.org.