NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

NIEHS Influences National Effort to Solve PFAS Problems

Dai performs research in a lab setting
Dr. Susie Dai of Texas A&M in the lab


As science on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) develops, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) continually plays a substantive role.

A group of more than 9,000 manmade chemicals, PFAS have been used for decades in a variety of industrial and consumer products. Now found in drinking water, soil and dust, researchers estimate PFAS can be detected in 98% of Americans.

PFAS stay in the environment, rather than breaking down, due to chemical bonds within the molecules that are hard to split.

NIEHS partnered with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to commission a study on health effects related to PFAS by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

The resulting report notes that all 50 states have some PFAS contamination, but not all of this contamination is at a level that calls for health warnings. People are mainly exposed to PFAS through consuming contaminated water and food, according to the report.

“NIEHS-funded scientists are currently assessing different kinds of PFAS and supporting the development of methods to screen for, monitor and remediate these substances, among many other efforts,” said NIEHS Director Dr. Rick Woychik.

Health effects from PFAS exposure are a concern. The report asserts there is sufficient evidence of association between such exposure and increased chance of a decreased antibody response in adults and children, decreased infant and fetal growth, abnormally high cholesterol and kidney cancer in adults.

The report, coupled with NIEHS-supported research, can be used to help clinicians better test, diagnose and provide care to patients exposed to PFAS.

Although PFAS are difficult and expensive to clean up, promising cost-effective technologies are underway. Novel remediation methods are being developed with grant funding from NIEHS’s Superfund Research Program.

Successful remediation requires an initial crack of hard-to-break bonds in the PFAS molecule followed by destruction of any harmful secondary molecules. Some PFAS or their byproducts of removal are buried or burned, which leads to other environmental concerns. Cleaner methods are needed.

At the University of California, Riverside, NIEHS grant recipients demonstrated how microbes can break down certain PFAS into smaller, non-toxic molecules. Investigators also showed that some PFAS can be more easily degraded than others.

A clear glass of water balances on a rusty rail near a body of water
Information from the National Emerging Contaminants Research Initiative will inform future drinking water standards.

At Texas A&M University, NIEHS grantees discovered a plant-derived material that adsorbs and disposes of certain PFAS with microbial fungi that literally eat these chemicals. Adsorption is the process of molecules sticking to a surface.

“The plant’s cell wall material serves as a framework to adsorb the PFAS,” stated Dr. Susie Dai, Texas A&M associate professor. “Then this material and the adsorbed chemical serve as food for a microbial fungus. The fungus eats it, it’s gone and you don’t have the disposal problem. Basically, the fungus is doing the detoxification process.”

Knowledge of the effects of PFAS exposure and potential treatments has grown, thanks to recent research. But there is more work to do, and those efforts involve preparing science to handle future discovery of other harmful chemicals.

In addition to PFAS, there are certain other chemical compounds that have attracted national attention because they have been found in water sources. Called “contaminants of emerging concern,” these pollutants come from everyday consumer products, industrial manufacturing processes and agricultural practices. But they have been traditionally difficult to detect in drinking water.

In response, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued the National Emerging Contaminants Research Initiative report this past August. The document establishes a vision to provide access to clean and plentiful drinking water for every person in the country. Strategic goals that address critical research gaps are outlined.

NIEHS staff shaped the report as leading members of the interagency working group.

“The working group aimed to identify critical research priorities for analyzing, monitoring and treating emerging contaminants in drinking water,” said working group member Dr. David Balshaw, acting director of NIEHS’s Division of Extramural Research and Training. “Integrating the work of federal agencies is necessary to address data gaps and to protect public health.”

This year, OSTP and federal partners will coordinate to support implementation of this initiative.

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