URI Receives $8 Million Federal Grant To Test Drinking Water For Contaminants

Aug 17, 2017

Researchers at the University of Rhode Island and Harvard University will start testing drinking water in Cape Cod after Labor Day for chemicals found in nonstick pans, water-resistant furniture and apparel, and firefighting foam.

The new research team received a five-year $8 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to look for perfluorinated compounds in groundwater around Joint Base Cape Cod, a military training site, where firefighting foam was used during training exercises. 

"After (training) is done, the foam just seeps into the ground, and because the chemicals don’t bind to the soil that strongly, it kind of migrates down to the drinking water and becomes part of the drinking water," Rainer Lohmann, oceanographer at URI and leader of the research team, said.

Perfluorinated chemicals have been used in consumer products since the 1950s. The two worst  types of compounds, perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctane sulfonate, also called PFOA and PFOS, aren't used in manufacturing anymore, but could still be present in the environment, Lohmann said. 

These chemicals are persistent, resist degradation, and bioaccumulate, meaning they become concentrated in the blood and organs, according the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The agency also reported perfluorinated substances have been found at very low levels in the environment and blood samples of people across the country. 

Previous studies have found exposure to these chemicals could weaken the immune system, cause thyroid disease or, in extreme cases, cause kidney and testicular cancers.

Unsafe drinking water contamination has been found in New England states as well, including New Hampshire and Vermont. 

Lohmann said his team wants to learn more about these pollutants, including the chemicals that have been used in place of PFOA and PFOS. He said his team will notify the public of their findings and, if necessary, figure out how to reduce people’s exposure.