Policy, health, and justice—focus of October meeting on PFAS contaminants in drinking water

Virtual conference highlights next generation of scientists working to address contamination crisis

Kingston, RI (Aug. 31, 2020) – The University of Rhode Island (URI) STEEP Superfund Research Center is hosting a conference, “PFAS In Our World: What We Know and What We Can Do,” October 13 and 14, 2020. The virtual event will focus on the expanding crisis of PFAS contaminants in our drinking water and the policy, health, and environmental justice implications. The conference will also emphasize the exchange of ideas among early-career scientists and how science can advance policies to protect communities from contamination.

“We want to create an opportunity for young scientists interested in PFAS to learn how their research can have an impact, whether it’s guiding environmental regulations, reducing people’s exposure, or protecting communities most at risk,” says STEEP trainee Heidi Pickard, a PhD student at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Pickard and fellow STEEP trainees from URI and Harvard are helping to organize the event.

PFAS are a class of chemicals that companies add to consumer products to make them nonstick, waterproof, and stain-resistant. They are also used in firefighting foams and industrial processes. The hazardous chemicals have been detected in groundwater and drinking water across the country, affecting millions of Americans and raising health concerns.

“These chemicals are highly pervasive, they never degrade, and they can cause health effects at very low levels of exposure,” says URI professor Rainer Lohmann, who leads the STEEP center. “So, it’s imperative that we find solutions to keeping these chemicals from entering our environment and our bodies.”

Ian Cousins, professor of environmental organic chemistry at Stockholm University in Sweden, will deliver a keynote address on the essential and non-essential uses of PFAS—grouping PFAS according to their societal benefits and needs in order to facilitate their phase-out.

Other meeting highlights:

  • Linda Birnbaum, former head of National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), will give a talk on environmental policy and how young scientists and voters can support effective policymaking.
  • Andrea Amico from Testing for Pease in New Hampshire and Mark Favors from Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition in Colorado will share the perspective of communities disproportionately impacted by PFAS contamination.

Read the full program for “PFAS in Our World.”

“Through this meeting, we hope to promote effective communication between scientists and communities, and we hope it will serve as a stepping stone toward using our science to support real environmental health policy,” says STEEP Trainee Alicia Crisalli, a PhD student at the URI College of Pharmacy.

Registration for the meeting is open to the public. Although, the event is aimed at NIEHS Superfund Centers trainees, graduate students, and early-career scientists, anyone interested in the intersection of science, technology, environmental justice, and social equity is encouraged to attend.

The conference will be followed by a free workshop on October 15-16 hosted by Green Science Policy Institute.

About STEEP: STEEP (Sources, Transport, Exposure and Effects of PFAS) is a collaboration between the University of Rhode Island, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Health, and Silent Spring Institute. Led by URI, the project is addressing the emerging and expanding problem of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water—how these chemicals move through our environment, how we are exposed through our drinking water, and how they affect our health. Local project partners include the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition and the Sierra Club Cape Cod Group. The project is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). For more information about STEEP, visit: https://web.uri.edu/steep/