Environment

Scientists update lawmakers on PFAS research, including presence of compounds in food

Lee Ferguson of Duke University, a co-researcher on PFAs and PFOAs in drinking water in the Triangle. (Photo: Duke University)

In the freezer at Lee Ferguson’s lab at Duke University, there is an Antarctic ice core with layers of the Earth’s atmospheric history trapped inside. Ferguson plans to melt the top portion, then test the water to see if perfluorinated compounds are present. If the melt water tests positive, we’ll know that PFAS has reached one of the most remote places on Earth.

If no PFAS are detected, then life in Antarctica is looking better by the day.

At the House Environment Committee meeting yesterday, lawmakers received an update from the NC Policy Collaboratory about its NC PFAST Network. More than a dozen university scientists are studying the presence, health effects and potential removal treatments of emerging compounds, including GenX, throughout North Carolina.

“This is the largest-scale monitoring team for emerging compounds in the country,” Ferguson said. “We hope it serves as a model for studying emerging compounds and legacy contaminants. You can see the tempo of this research accelerating.”

Scientists are sampling 158 wells and 190 surface water intakes for more than 50 PFAS compounds, as well as what’s called “non-targeted analysis” — searching for unknown compounds, said Wanda Bodnar, assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering at UNC.

Other scientists in the NC PFAST Network are studying the compounds in landfill leachate, air and food crops. Bondar told Rep. Pricey Harrison that team members also plan to look at the potential health effects of interactions of different compounds.

UNC Assistant Professor Wanda Bodnar (Photo: UNC Chapel Hill)

Exposure to PFAS has been linked to testicular and kidney cancer, thyroid and reproductive disorders, and a depressed immune system. Although the chemical industry maintains that GenX is less toxic than the compounds it replaced —  PFOA and PFOS — East Carolina University scientist Jamie Dewitt said that might not be true. “What we see is that GenX and PFAS have the same health effects and act in similar ways. GenX might be even more toxic on liver.”

A study of children in the Faroe Islands, located between Iceland and Norway, found they had a diminished response to vaccines, possibly because of exposure to PFAS. Although the Faroe Islands are remote, its residents are exposed to the compounds through pilot whales, an important food source for them.

UNC scientist Rebecca Fry is conducting a study of pregnant women who are at risk of pre-term delivery. The women are voluntarily allowing their blood and urine to be tested before and after their babies are born. Researchers also will test umbilical cord blood and placentas to determine if PFAS are transmitted in utero, and if so, to what degree.

Policy Collaboratory Research Director Jeffrey Warren called the effort “Herculean.” Lawmakers funded the PFAS project with a $5 million appropriation; the collaboratory has also raised sufficient matching funds to meet a $3.5 million challenge grant.

House Bill 661, co-sponsored by Rep. John Fraley, a Republican from Iredell County, and Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, would appropriate another round of $5 million funding to the Policy Collaboratory to continue its research.

The appropriation would also help match other money. “There’s an enormous amount of federal funds for this,” Warren said. “PFAS is the thing.”

 

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