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June 4, 2019

Team of MSU scientists tackling the PFAS crisis

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are colloquially known as “forever chemicals” because they are so difficult to break down. They are found in water supplies wherever flame retardants, waterproofing or vapor suppressants are used. PFAS can be absorbed through direct contact (drinking, bathing, swimming) or indirectly (eating meat or vegetables that have been exposed to PFAS).

Millions of Michigan residents and potentially more than hundreds of sites nationwide ­– and counting – have PFAS-tainted water. Many Michigan State University scientists are tackling various aspects of this crisis. Here are a few of the highlights:

MSU-Fraunhofer USA, Inc. Center for Coatings and Diamond Technologies is developing a scalable treatment option for PFAS-contaminated wastewater.

The city commission of Grand Rapids recently approved investing $300,000 into MSU-Fraunhofer’s technology for breaking apart the high-strength chemical bonds of PFAS.

“If we can remove it from wastewater, we can reduce its occurrence in surface waters,” said Cory Rusinek, electrochemist at MSU-Fraunhofer.

Qi Hua Fan, associate professor of engineering, also is working with MSU-Fraunhofer. He is leading an effort to develop innovative biochar technology with a polarized, active surface designed to “trap” shorter chains of PFAS. Those contaminants can then be treated in a plasma chamber to break them down and destroy their structural chains. Fan and the team are working to scale up testing and production of this filtration system.

Courtney Carignan, assistant professor of food science and human nutrition, is part of a national team of researchers using a $1.96 million U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant to help state and local agencies reduce exposure to the harmful chemicals in communities across the nation.

Carignan will study the extent in which PFAS accumulate in locally harvested foods like vegetables, fish and eggs, and more broadly, the relative contribution of drinking water and local foods to PFAS exposure in impacted communities. Further, the team will collect needed data to enable predictions of how quickly PFAS will migrate, particularly through soil into groundwater.

David Hyndman, hydrogeology professor, is part of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team. His area of expertise focuses on models of the movement of contaminants in ground water. Understanding how contaminants flow can lead to better remediation practices that save time and funds.

MSU recently organized a forum to discuss the impact PFAS will have on Michigan as well as the state’s response to the issue. The MSU panelists included:

  • Lois Wolfson, senior specialist, MSU Extension and fisheries and wildlife, provided
    background on PFAS in the environment
  • Cheryl Murphy, associate professor in fisheries and wildlife, presented an ecological risk assessment
  • Susan Masten, civil and environmental engineering professor, presented remediation strategies and research needs

MSU Extension also has created the PFAS Contamination Response site for Michigan residents who have questions about PFAS in their community. People can submit their questions and concerns privately or publicly and attach documents and photos via this interactive site.

By: Layne Cameron

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