Protecting rural waterways

Linda Lee

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have long been used to make products like stain-resistant carpets and clothing, waterproof textiles, and nonstick pots and pans. But the frequent use of PFAS also means they accumulate in our bodies. Research has linked some PFAS to increased levels of cholesterol, low infant birth weight, thyroid and immune system problems, and cancer.

With wastewater treatment plants as conduits of our waste, PFAS can be found in treated sludges used as fertilizers on farms as well as treated wastewater used in irrigation.  Linda Lee, professor of agronomy, received a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to understand the ways in which these agricultural applications may affect surface water and groundwater that feed rural drinking wells in Indiana, Pennsylvania and Virginia. With other partners, including Virginia’s Hampton Roads Sanitation District, Lee’s team will receive more than $2.3 million for the research.

“Plants grow better when you apply biosolids, but they also contain PFAS,” Lee says. “Right now, there’s a knowledge gap there. We don’t know if these PFAS are getting into rural water supplies and, if so, at what levels and what might be the primary transport pathways.”

Lee’s study will evaluate the levels of PFAS in land-applied biosolids; the fate, transport and crop uptake of PFAS; the levels of PFAS in local rural water supplies; and the ways in which climate, landscape and hydrology affect PFAS movement and distribution.

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