KINGSTON, R.I. (CN) – The University of Rhode Island is using an $8 million grant to lead the charge in understanding how fluorinated pollutants found in products like nonstick cookware and firefighting foam contaminate drinking water and affect people.
“Fluorinated chemicals contain fluoride, but not the fluoride that is good for your teeth,” Rainer Lohmann, a professor at the university’s Graduate School of Oceanography, told Courthouse News. “They are long chain molecules that have great properties, used to make Teflon or even your couch, but unfortunately they also have some nasty side effects when they are done with their intended use that can cause health concerns.”
Lohmann is the director of a team of interdisciplinary scientists from URI and Harvard collaborating under the five-year, $8 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The Cape Cod research organization Silent Spring Institute is also on board.
“The problem is absolutely nationwide,” Lohmann said of the Rhode Island and Massachusetts-based project.
“The EPA reported at least six million Americas were exposed to a concentration of these contaminants above EPA safe levels,” he added, abbreviating the Environmental Protection Agency.
Exposure to fluorinated pollutants – also known as poly- and perfluorinated alkyl substances, or PFASs – has been linked to kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease, colitis and suppression of the immune system, according to a statement released by URI, which also says the chemicals could be contaminating drinking water.
Little is known about the effects of PFASs because, although they have been around for decades, they weren’t discovered in people and the environment until 2000, the university said.
URI described PFASs as “persistent because they don’t break down when exposed to air, water or sunlight and can travel long distances, exposing people and other living things in environments thousands of miles away.”
Sources of the chemicals include landfills, manufacturers and industrial users of the chemicals, and sites that use foam to extinguishe fires. PFASs can also be found in nonstick cookware and certain textiles, carpets and building materials.
Lohmann said his team plans on continuing ongoing studies, with results “rolling in as we speak,” while also developing control animal studies that will determine how these chemicals impact obesity, liver function and children’s health. They also hope to understand how the contamination spreads.
“Then, we will try to develop novel tools to combat the problem,” he added.
“The exciting part about this is that you have to cut across different lines,” Lohmann said of working with different scientists. “We started meeting three years ago. It took a little while to agree on what we can do what, what we should do, and what we will do. We had to agree on common language. As soon as you have different fields involved, we use the same words in different context, so we had to overcome those obstacles, but we’ve managed that by now.”