Michigan State University research and extension work explores emerging PFAS issues

Both experts and residents are becoming more aware and concerned about PFAS contamination in our environment, water, and fish.  PFAS, the acronym for about 4,000-5,000 chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are manmade chemicals that have been used in common household and industrial products.  PFAS chemicals are both water and oil resistant making them ideal for products such as stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, water and oil repellents, foams used in fighting fires, metal spray plating, tanneries, and some types of nonstick cookware. These chemicals are persistent and do not easily break down.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a Lifetime Health Advisory level of 70 parts per trillion combined for two of the more prevalent PFAS chemicals found in drinking water, perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Health advisory levels for the other PFAS chemicals have not been set.

The state of Michigan has convened a multi-agency team to investigate potential sources and locations where PFAS may be present and is testing water bodies, sediments, wastewater, fish and wildlife for these chemicals. Certain PFAS chemicals have been linked to developmental issues in animals, increased cholesterol levels, risk of thyroid disease, and increased risk of cancer.

Extension educators and researchers gathered last month to discuss ongoing activities relating to PFAS issues

To help with the state’s efforts, Michigan State University (MSU) Extension is currently facilitating monthly meetings consisting of Extension educators, researchers, and a state agency representative. Utilizing the national eXtension platform, the team has set up an “Ask an Expert” site on PFAS issues.  This site will help Michigan residents navigate information sources and direct them to pertinent resources, research, experts and State of Michigan information.

Another project involves expanding education and programming around mitigating impacts of PFAS and addressing mixed messages often delivered to the public.  MSU Extension Specialist Dr. Jubin Cheruvelil and his colleague, Stephanie Ostrenga, Nutrition SNAP-Ed Supervisor, are developing an online curriculum focusing on water toxicity and nutrition.  Portions of the curriculum will address how individuals may be ingesting PFAS through consuming high-risk foods, food cleaning and hygiene, and sources of PFOS and PFOA in cooking activities. The team will also hold pilot workshops covering similar topics in several tribal communities near an air force base found to have high concentrations of PFAS in the soil and water.

MSU colleagues are also working on a number of PFAS related research projects. One research project involves wastewater biosolids.  The city of Detroit’s Water Resource Recovery Facility produces 450 dry tons of biosolids daily, half of which are applied as fertilizer in the Great Lakes Region.  Dr. Hui Li, in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences at MSU, studies the environmental fate of organic contaminants in soils and related impacts to ecosystem services and food safety.  He and Dr. Steve Safferman, in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, are interested in determining if these residuals are contaminated with PFOA or PFOS and will examine the occurrence and fate of these chemicals.

MSU environmental exposure scientist and epidemiologist, Dr. Courtney Carignan, is involved with PFAS research at both the national and state level. Her work will include exposure characterization, impacts on reproductive and child health, community engagement, and research translation.

One method currently being explored for PFAS destruction is using electrochemical oxidation with boron-doped diamond electrodes.  Researcher Cory Rusinek with the MSU-Fraunhofer Center for Coatings and Diamond Technologies is working with colleagues to utilize this technology on PFAS contaminants in wastewater.  While still in its pilot phase, the process breaks down the chemicals’ strong bonds and degrades the PFAS contaminants.

Additionally, a study just underway will explore PFAS in the environment and the implications for fish, wildlife and agriculture. Dr. Cheryl Murphy in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at MSU and her colleagues will look at biological effects from PFAS exposure and the pathways for exposure.  With this information, they hope to characterize and assess risks to fish and wildlife populations. The assessment will help to answer a myriad of questions such as, how do these chemicals bioaccumulate and biomagnify? These studies will require controlled laboratory or “semi-field” dietary biomagnification experiments in fish and wildlife; experiments that expose mammals to background levels of PFAS in drinking water and feed; and studies exploring linkages between exposure models and fate and transport of contaminants.

These projects are examples of the work ongoing at Michigan State University.  Because PFAS is a critical issue for the University and the State of Michigan, research and extension efforts will continue to address critical environmental and health issues involving PFAS contaminants.

Dr. Lois Wolfson, Michigan State University

Dr. Lois Wolfson is an Aquatic Ecologist and Senior Outreach Specialist with the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and Institute of Water Research at Michigan State University.  She also serves as the MSU Extension representative to the North Central Region Water Network.  Her outreach work focuses on educational programming in lake ecology and watershed management, emerging water issues, invasive species, and cyanobacteria blooms. She teaches a course in field and lab techniques in aquatic ecosystems and is an instructor for an online course in lake ecology and management.  Dr. Wolfson received her MS in Botany and PhD in Fisheries and Wildlife from Michigan State University.

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