Taking the ‘forever’ out of ‘forever’ chemicals

by | Apr 9, 2020 | Big Ideas, Spring 2020 | 0 comments

When Earl Tennant first reached out to environmental attorney Rob Bilott about the mysterious ailments befalling the cows on his West Virginia farm, no one was talking about “forever chemicals.”

In 1998, few people had heard of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a persistent fluorinated chemical nicknamed “C8” that the nearby DuPont plant was using to manufacture Teflon.

Twenty-two years later, communities across the U.S. are getting a crash course in PFOA and other poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as they grapple with drinking water contaminated with these “forever chemicals,” so called because of their failure to break down in the environment. In Colorado, Fountain, Security and Widefield south of Colorado Springs and parts of south Adams County are among them.

An emerging body of evidence shows the fluorinated chemicals can cause cancer and developmental, endocrine, renal and metabolic problems.

Mines welcomed Bilott to campus earlier this year for the Herbert L. and Doris S. Young Environmental Issues Symposium. In a keynote talk and panel discussion, Bilott helped shed light on the future of PFAS—and Mines’ important role in the fight.

“I’m afraid we’re probably looking at another 20 years of research into what do we do with this stuff,” Bilott said during his keynote. “How do we handle it now that we’re finally realizing it’s out there and we’ve all been exposed and it’s everywhere?”

Tackling the PFAS problem

Today, Chris Higgins, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and his colleagues at Mines are at the forefront of the fight against “forever chemicals.” Researchers are making an impact in the areas of fate and transport—how these chemicals move and accumulate in the environment, Higgins’ expertise —and remediation—what to do once they’re in drinking water, the focus of fellow Civil and Environmental Engineering faculty Timothy Strathmann and Chris Bellona.

In many ways, Mines was perfectly poised to be a leader on PFAS, Higgins said, because of its historic strengths in environmental chemistry and water issues and its commitment to solving real-world problems.

“What’s particularly unique is I feel like we are better suited to deal with practical problems than a lot of other schools,” Higgins said. “It’s not that we don’t do fundamental research, but our engagement with industry, with practitioners, with real problems, is very well recognized on campus and encouraged.”

The future of “forever chemicals”

Mines’ partners on the PFAS problem include the Colorado School of Public Health and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), both of which were represented, along with Bilott and Higgins, on the panel at the Young Environmental Issues Symposium.

The current EPA health advisory limit for PFAS in drinking water is 70 parts per trillion—a “really low level” when you’re talking about the firefighting foams that have been linked to contamination south of Colorado Springs and elsewhere, Higgins said. “One five-gallon bucket of this foam—of this historical foam containing the PFOS and PFOA—has enough of those chemicals in it to contaminate a water supply for 27,000 people for an entire year.”

Manufacturers are moving away from the worst offenders—C8s— but the replacement foams still contain PFAS that are just as persistent in the environment while less accumulative in the body, Higgins said. “There’s been a movement to this as a potential Band-Aid until we get to a point where we have fluorine-free foams.”

Colorado is working hard to limit PFAS exposure throughout the state, said Tracie A. White ’98, remediation program manager at CDPHE. Potential state legislation introduced this year would give CDPHE the authority to require public utilities to test for PFAS in both their source and finished water. Under the bill, facilities with PFAS-containing foam would also have to register with the state and prove they are properly capturing and disposing of the foam.

On the remediation side, researchers at Mines and other institutions are making headway on a number of promising technologies that could treat contaminated water while it’s still in the ground. White said, “We are excited to be pilot testing a couple of these different technologies at Peterson Air Force Base during this upcoming year.”