The known unknowns

In 2016, a group of North Carolina researchers published evidence of high rates of PFAS in the Cape Fear River basin. While this unregulated family of chemicals is used in the production of everyday goods, its impact on human health is largely unknown. For the past year, scientists from UNC-Chapel Hill, five other UNC system universities, and Duke University, have researched these potentially dangerous chemicals found in drinking water sources across the state.

Karsten Baumann balances his entire upper body over the side of the second-story porch at his home in Morrisville, retrieving a device used to gather air samples. The UNC-Chapel Hill environmental engineer at the Gillings School of Global Public Health brings the equipment into the makeshift lab in his kitchen, carefully removing each compartment to collect the filtration system within.

What is he looking for? He’s not exactly sure.

Baumann is gathering samples to detect per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — a family of chemicals used in the creation of products containing non-stick coating like cookware, food wrapping, clothing, cosmetics, carpet and even dental floss. Because this class of chemicals contains over 5,000 different types, he will only be able to detect about 55.

Although these compounds are used in thousands of products, their impact on the environment and human health is largely unknown.

“I think the challenge has been that there haven’t been enough health studies on these compounds simply because we’re just realizing the extent of the problem, especially in the last decade or so,” said Jason Surratt, a UNC-Chapel Hill atmospheric chemist and director of the NC PFAS Testing Network –– a collaboration between seven North Carolina universities assembled to research these contaminants.

Extensive research has been conducted on one particular PFAS, called PFOA, in large part due to a lawsuit brought against the chemical manufacturing company DuPont for knowingly dumping the toxic chemicals in the Ohio River and contaminating drinking water supplies for residents throughout Ohio and West Virginia. In 2016, researchers published evidence of high rates of PFAS in the Cape Fear River basin – a drinking water source for 1.5 million North Carolinians.

Previous findings have associated PFOA with a multitude of health concerns like high cholesterol, weakened immune system and response to vaccines, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, fetal development issues and kidney and testicular cancer. These compounds are thought of as systemic toxicants in that not just one organ is particularly impacted — the entire body is affected.

Despite concerns from the scientific community, a majority of these compounds are approved for manufacture.

“A feature of all of these compounds is that they’re unregulated,” said Detlef Knappe, a civil and environmental engineer from North Carolina State University. “So there’s no safe value that we can convey to the public or that a water treatment plant could target. So far, no PFAS has been tested that was deemed perfectly safe.”

In recent years, researchers have uncovered high concentrations of these chemicals in drinking water sources across the country, causing alarm among communities. Knappe bets that if any one person in the United States were to have their blood sampled, PFAS would show up in the results.

The North Carolina PFAS Testing Network, established by UNC-Chapel Hill’s NC Policy Collaboratory, was born out of this public health concern.

Formed in 2018 as a legislative mandate by the North Carolina General Assembly and currently funded with $7 million in state appropriations, the network is comprised of researchers from UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State University, Duke University, UNC-Wilmington, UNC-Charlotte, East Carolina University and NC A&T State University.

Their goal is to answer a wide range of questions about these compounds — from how they are transported through water, air, and soil, to potential human health impacts, and the effectiveness of at-home removal systems.

The network consists of five different research teams, each focused on a different aspect of PFAS research.

“We’re really fortunate in this state to have some of the nation’s leading PFAS researchers at these universities,” Surratt said, “So we’ve been able to assemble a very strong team of researchers to address this question.”

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