PROVIDENCE – Scientists know that the so-called “forever chemicals” used in firefighting foam and all manner of consumer products are responsible for contaminating drinking water supplies across the nation.
They know that people have also been exposed to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, through everything from microwave popcorn bags and other types of food packaging to nonstick cookware, to cosmetics and rain jackets.
And they know that the substances, which have been linked to cancers, low birth weights and other health problems, can be transmitted by pregnant mothers to their babies in the womb.
But there is still much that isn’t known about fluorinated compounds, which were invented in the 1930s and have been used widely because of their ability to repel oil, grease and water.
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Continued funding from federal government
Learning more about how the chemicals enter the human body will be the focus of study at a PFAS research center at the University of Rhode Island as it continues its work with the help of another five years of funding from the federal government.
University officials gathered Thursday with members of the congressional delegation and leaders in state government to announce the $8.1-million grant for the Sources, Transport, Exposure and Effects of PFAS, or STEEP, center.
While drinking water contamination is pervasive, it can’t explain studies showing that nearly all Americans have PFAS in their blood. Food has long been believed to be another pathway for the chemicals to enter the body. A more recent study from the STEEP center pointed to indoor air as a culprit.
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But Rainer Lohmann, co-director of the center, said much more research needs to be done to pinpoint sources of contamination by the chemicals.
“We’re just not sure at this point,” said Lohmann, who co-authored the study on indoor air. “And that’s a little disconcerting.”
Formed as a partnership between URI, Harvard and the Silent Spring Institute in 2017, the STEEP center set out to shed more light on the health effects of PFAS. The center was created under the federal Superfund Research Program using an $8 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health. It’s that grant that was just renewed.
Why PFAS are a threat to public health
PFAS compounds don’t break down in the environment over time, thus the “forever chemical” moniker. As the science around the chemicals has advanced, state and federal governments have cracked down. In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released new drinking-water health advisories for two of the most common PFAS compounds. Under the EPA’s new findings, virtually no detectable amounts of PFOA or PFOS are considered safe to consume.
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In Rhode Island, Gov. Dan McKee in July signed into law the state’s first-ever drinking water standard for the chemicals. With the law’s enactment, at least six water systems in the state will have to install filtration technology.
One of the systems supplies URI with its drinking water. University President Marc Parlange said the school is talking to state and federal officials about funding sources to pay for the upgrades. He also urged voters to approve a $100-million bond referendum on the Nov. 8 general election ballot that would be used to build facilities at the school’s Narragansett Bay campus, where the STEEP center is based.
Terrence Gray, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, said the chemicals are difficult to regulate because there are so many and they’re used in numerous ways. What to do about PFAS inevitably comes up as a topic whenever he meets with his counterparts from other states.
“The science is still evolving,” he said. “There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. This is a huge environmental challenge.”