Top University Researchers Across the State to Collaborate on Emerging Contaminant Detection, Modeling and Impact Assessment

The North Carolina Policy Collaboratory received a new $5,013,000 million appropriation from the N.C. General Assembly as part of the State budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year to conduct baseline water quality testing for a set of chemicals classified as Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) that include GenX, a potentially toxic industrial compound that has been detected in the Cape Fear River.

The Collaboratory will award grants to more than 20 researchers at multiple North Carolina universities to conduct the testing and begin work on related research projects aimed at:

  • Sampling public water sources statewide to establish a baseline and monitoring protocol moving forward.
  • Examining air emissions to better understand how air particles may impact water on and under the ground.
  • Developing models to predict which private water wells are at greatest risk of PFAS contamination.
  • Assessing the impact of PFAS on public health and testing the performance of technologies in removing them.

The study will be managed by the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, with Jason Surratt, associate professor of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, serving as lead investigator.  Surratt was chosen for the role by the Gillings Department of Environmental Science and Engineering Chair Barbara Turpin because of his extensive background in environmental chemistry, ability to collaborate across disciplines, and experience carrying out multi-university field campaigns.

“We are grateful to the legislature for this important opportunity to collaborate with universities and public agencies across North Carolina to obtain critical evidence needed to protect the health of North Carolinians,” said Gillings Dean Barbara K. Rimer. “With the outstanding university teams and comprehensive strategy that will be undertaken, North Carolina will lead the country in this kind of research.”

The study will be overseen by an advisory committee of faculty members from UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Wilmington, Duke University, East Carolina University and North Carolina State University. Detlef Knappe, professor of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering at NC State University, and Lee Ferguson, associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke University, are the co-chairs of the committee.

Both Knappe and Ferguson are internationally recognized experts in emerging contaminants being found in water. While studying the Cape Fear River, Knappe and his research team first discovered high levels of concentrations of industrial chemicals, including GenX. In November 2016, their results were published in the academic journal “Environmental Science & Technology Letters”—subsequent media reports on the study brought the issue to the attention of state officials.

Study Impact

As mandated by the legislature, the study will require water sampling in all regions of the state, thereby establishing a baseline for researchers to continue monitoring long-term changes in North Carolina’s water quality. The research will be conducted on a range issues, including drinking water wells, chemical compound removal and air quality impacts. The study’s broad scope places it at the forefront of efforts to determine whether there is a problem of emerging contaminants. If a problem is identified, the study’s scope includes determining its extent of impact and identifying practical solutions that protect the public from adverse health impacts of these compounds.

Results of the study will be shared with the public on a regular basis, including quarterly reports to the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission and other state and federal regulatory agencies beginning in October. The study will conclude fall 2019, and the team will issue its final report to the legislature Dec. 1, 2019.

The Collaboratory is planning a day-long symposium on emerging contaminants Sept. 28 at the Washington Duke Executive Conference Center in Durham, co-sponsored by the Duke University Program in Environmental Health and Toxicology, the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and the UNC Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility.

About the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory

The Collaboratory was established in the summer of 2016 by the North Carolina General Assembly for the purposes of facilitating the dissemination of the policy and research expertise of the University of North Carolina for practical use by state and local government. The Collaboratory facilitates and funds research related to the environmental and economic components of the management of the natural resources within North Carolina and of new technologies for habitat, environmental and water quality improvement. To date the Collaboratory has brought in more than $10 million in research dollars to the UNC System. More information about the Collaboratory can be found at: https://collaboratory.unc.edu/.

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