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Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte PFAS Testing Network Board Member

Exploring PFAS and its Effects on Human and Environmental Health

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are widely used, long lasting chemicals that pose potential risks to human and environmental health. Humans can be exposed to these chemicals due to concentrations in water, air, food, and soil. Dr. Mei Sun and scientists at the PFAS Testing Network are committed to mitigating problems associated with PFAS contamination in North Carolina, using funding from the North Carolina General Assembly to study PFAS toxicology and removal techniques.

Mei Sun

“In the past, there were areas in which we didn’t know PFAS contamination was an issue, and our investigation allowed us to identify the problem. There are currently areas with known PFAS contamination, and we need to look for measures to remove PFAS from those environments.”

Mei Sun

What is your role with the PFAS testing network, and what are some key takeaways from this research?

I have multiple roles in the PFAS network. First, I am one of the members of the executive committee. Committee members meet monthly to decide on important decisions concerning the whole network, particularly determining key research priorities, what projects we should invest in, and how we should allocate funding and resources to achieve various goals. The second role I have in this network is conducting research in the PFAS detection and treatment areas. We have received funding from the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA). The first round of funding occurred with the setup of the network, and I was a researcher in two major areas at that time—PFAS detection in NC drinking water sources, and PFAS treatment from water. A few years later, when we got the second round of funding from the NCGA, the network had a slightly different scope of research—we had removed the treatment component, so I now only do research in PFAS detection in source water.

What are some of the impacts of PFAS contamination on human and environmental health?

PFAS can be in multiple different environmental matrices. Humans can be exposed to PFAS through multiple pathways, as it can be found in drinking water, air soil, and food. PFAS contamination within these environmental matrices increases the health risk for human beings as well as plants and animals in an ecosystem. This environmental phenomenon increases the cost of a lot of essential activities, such as treating drinking water to ensure public health and safety.

What role could policymaking play in reducing the harmful effects of PFAS contamination, and what might some of these policies look like?

Some policies directly regulate PFAS content in different mediums. For example, the EPA is proposing new drinking water standards for PFAS, establishing a maximum contamination level present in drinking water. Another, more efficient and important way in my view is to regulate PFAS discharge pollution from the source. For a given source, like a chemical plant, this might look like establishing a cap on the amount of PFAS that can be released into the environment. What might be more challenging, however, is what we call non-point source pollution, where it’s difficult to pinpoint the precise location that the pollution is coming from. For example, land applied biosolids are used as agricultural soil amendments and are applied on a large area of agricultural land, making it harder to regulate as opposed to wastewater discharge.

Why is it important to continue researching and expanding our knowledge of the effects of PFAS contamination?

In the past, there were areas in which we didn’t know PFAS contamination was an issue, and our investigation allowed us to identify the problem. There are currently areas with known PFAS contamination, and we need to look for measures to remove PFAS from those environments. Additionally, there are new chemical structures that are known to belong to the family of PFAS, but we don’t know exactly what their toxic effects are. Toxicity studies can be used to identify and analyze the health risks of being exposed to such chemicals. Other important research studies focus on how PFAS moves up in the food chain: from soil to plants, from plants to animals, and from animals to human beings. This is essential information to guide our daily activity and provide protection for the public.

What are key pieces of information that you wish the general public understood better about PFAS contamination?

PFAS is everywhere. It’s contained not only in many industrial processes, but also in many consumer products such as non-stick pans, waterproof fabrics, etc. As individuals, we could take measures ourselves to reduce PFAS contamination in the environment by choosing products that don’t contain PFAS when its application is not essential. For example, non-stick pans and waterproof fabrics, in my opinion, are not necessary requirements for our daily lives. Instead, we could be mindful in choosing what we purchase to avoid those products, not only to avoid putting more PFAS into the environment, but also to reduce our own exposure to PFAS.

For more information, visit the North Carolina PFAS Testing Network.