EPA awards $1.6M for IU research on synthetic chemical exposure in rural drinking water

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has awarded Indiana University funding to further understand exposure risks of rural communities to per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, through their drinking water.

The $1,584,420 grant will support the joint research project conducted by the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington and the O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. The effort is part of a nationwide effort to implement the PFAS Action Plan, which outlines concrete steps the EPA is taking to address PFAS and protect public health.

Jacqueline MacDonald GibsonView print quality image
Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

IU is leading this project, which also includes RTI International, a nonprofit research organization in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. IU will development a scalable platform for predicting PFAS occurrence in private wells to help understand exposure risks to rural communities that rely on private wells for drinking water. IU will test the accuracy of its predictions by comparing modeling predictions to private well samples collected nationwide through a citizen science campaign using mail-out test kits. The research is expected to substantially improve the accuracy of risk predictions and to facilitate informed risk management decisions.

Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, chair and professor of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the School of Public Health, is the principal investigator, while O'Neill School associate scientist Amina Salamova is co-principal investigator.

"Very few studies have tested private wells for PFAS contamination, but the few available studies have found these contaminants in more than half the wells tested," Gibson said. "PFAS are widely used in consumer and industrial products -- ranging from microwave popcorn bags to firefighting foam -- but we don't yet have good ways to predict which water supplies are most at risk. This project will help advance knowledge and provide practical tools so rural communities can know their risks."

PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals that have been in use since the 1940s and are found in a wide range of consumer and industrial products. The researchers will investigate the occurrence of PFAS in rural wells as well as agricultural soils, wastewater and runoff water across the nation, shedding light on PFAS exposures in rural communities.

"Even though PFAS have been in use for decades, we still don't know much about their occurrence in the environment and specifically in drinking water," Salamova said. "This is a group of man-made chemicals that are very persistent in the environment and accumulate in animals and people, hence called forever chemicals."

Due to their widespread use, most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS, though information on health effects is highly uncertain, according to the EPA.

Work on the project is expected to begin Sept. 1 and last for approximately three years.

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