Michigan State researchers lead effort on PFAS crisis

State has most contamination sites in nation; scientists working to learn more about little-known contaminant

Cheryl Murphy, associate professor of ecotoxicology of fish in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, works in her lab. She is hopeful that a lab solely dedicated to PFAs research is in the near future.
Cheryl Murphy, associate professor of ecotoxicology of fish in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, is hopeful that a lab solely dedicated to PFAs research is in the near future.

Michigan is outpacing the nation in the number of recognized PFAS contamination sites. Yet, this stat only tells a small aspect of a complex story that has Michigan State University (MSU) researchers on the frontlines of a worldwide battle against these persistent, potentially dangerous chemicals.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are manmade chemicals that have been used in a variety of industries worldwide for more than 80 years. Used for waterproofing and in flame retardants and many household products, PFAS do not break down and instead, accumulate over time. There is also evidence that exposure to them can lead to adverse human health effects.

Little else is known about PFAS, and MSU researchers are hoping to soon provide answers for questions such as: What are the health effects of PFAS? Where are PFAS located? Where do PFAS eventually end up? How are humans consuming them? And, ultimately, how can PFAS be broken down and eliminated?

“Most of what PFAS are we don’t know yet,” said Dan Jones, MSU professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and recent member of the Michigan PFAS Science Advisory Panel. “We can define a class of chemicals, but most of what we know about them is limited to only a very small number of the chemicals that were in the earliest versions of ScotchGard and used as water- and oil-repellent coatings.”

PFAS chemicals consist of a chain of carbon atoms with fluorine atoms bound to carbon by one of the strongest bonds found in nature. It takes heat of approximately 1,100 degrees centigrade to efficiently break the bond between the two elements and convert PFAS to harmless substances. The two most commonly studied PFAS chemicals are PFOA and PFOS, but thousands of varieties exist.

Michigan has become the focal point of PFAS research. The state’s water supply largely comes from groundwater and wells, so a large majority of its population could be affected by PFAS contamination in water. State agencies, in turn, have placed a high priority on locating PFAS contamination sites.

“(We have more cases) because Michigan has been looking for it,” said Cheryl Murphy, associate professor of ecotoxicology of fish in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. “There’s been more sampling in Michigan in the last couple of years than a lot of other places. The state has been really focused, but we also need to determine the most strategic way to sample and what the data means, and that work is perfect for researchers at MSU.”

Murphy said a concerted, cooperative effort, including a potential lab solely dedicated to PFAS research, would be necessary because of the complexity of PFAS and the research involved.

“There are over 5,000 of these types of chemicals out there, and a vast majority of them have not been tested appropriately,” she said. “We are on the tip of the iceberg on this topic. There’s thousands and thousands of papers on PFAS (but just focused on two types), but we need to start to think of it more collectively. When I go to ecotoxicology conferences, there are PFAS sessions, but it’s always about a specific species or specific chemical. We need to think about this more holistically and adopt systems types approaches.”

Some of the work being done at MSU includes work by the MSU-Fraunhofer USA, Inc. Center for Coatings and Diamond Technologies to apply an electrochemical oxidation system that uses boron-doped diamond electrodes to break down PFAS molecular bonds. MSU recently hosted a forum, featuring a panel of experts that included Murphy, to discuss the impact of PFAS on the state. MSU Extension has a PFAS contamination response website, and other researchers are examining how humans are exposed to PFAS and how that exposure can be limited.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS can be found in food, commercial household products, drinking water and living organisms.

Jones said human exposure to PFAS over the past 80 years has been widespread worldwide. “We are much more contaminated than the drinking water that we worry about,” he said. “So, one part of what we’re trying to do is sort out where the exposure comes from and how these chemicals are absorbed.”

MSU researchers also want to examine just how detrimental PFAS can be to human health. According to the EPA, human ingestion of PFAS through drinking water, food, or household dust can cause reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney and immunological effects.

These effects have been seen in tests on laboratory animals. Increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations have been the most consistent findings in studies.

“I think the health effects are the thing keeping people in state agencies up at night,” Jones said. “Many in the public are concerned. They want to know if they are being exposed and if their health is at risk. There’s a lot of uncertainty and lack of knowledge. We don’t yet know what’s a safe level to consume. Until we start answering some of those questions, there will be a lot of anxiety.”

This article was published in In the Field, a yearly magazine produced by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. To view past issues of In the Field, visit www.canr.msu.edu/inthefield. For more information, email Eileen Gianiodis, editor, at gianiod1@msu.edu or call 517-355-1855.

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