UArizona Receives $1.3M Federal Grant to Study Synthetic Chemicals Posing Risk to Regional Aquifer

Wednesday, July 7, 2021
A senior airman blows a small sea of fire retardant foam that was unintentionally released in an aircraft hangar at Travis Air Force Base in California on Sept. 24, 2013. Firefighting foams such as these are now known to contain PFAS, which don't break down in the environment or body. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ken Wright/Released)

A $1.3 million grant from the Department of Defense's Environmental Security Technology Certification Program will allow University of Arizona researchers to further study how synthetic chemicals known as PFAS move through soil and threaten groundwater.

PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are composed of nearly 3,000 synthetic chemicals and have been widely used in industrial and consumer products since the 1940s, including firefighting foams, paints, food packaging, water-resistant clothing and household cookware. In 2019, the Department of Defense cited a total of 651 military installations that have been impacted by these synthetic chemicals.

At a local level, PFAS not only pose a long-term threat to groundwater quality, but also a long-term challenge to scientists tasked with cleaning them up, explained Bo Guo, the principal investigator of the project and an assistant professor in the Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences.

"PFAS have been discovered almost everywhere in the world. While toxicological research is still ongoing and very limited data is available, it's clear that these types of chemicals can cause adverse health effects, including cancer, at very, very low concentrations," Guo said. "We are talking about parts per trillion levels."

"We have the long-term persistence, their presence pretty much everywhere in the environment, and the toxicological impacts from exposure. Those three things together make PFAS very critical emerging contaminants of concern," said Mark Brusseau, an environmental scientist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-principal investigator on the project.

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