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Thursday, May 23, 2024
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 In a 13-bill package, Wisconsin takes initial steps to provide clean drinking water to its citizens, but organizations think there needs to be a more “comprehensive fix.”

UW-Madison will launch research center to tackle PFAS contamination, safeguard water resources

The University of Wisconsin-Madison announced its plans for a new center within the Water Sciences and Engineering Lab late last month.

 The University of Wisconsin-Madison plans to launch a groundbreaking, federally-funded research initiative to combat the pervasive issue of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, contamination in water systems. 

According to the Wisconsin Sea Grant, a statewide research program based at UW-Madison, the university will establish the Center of Excellence in PFAS Environmental Science within its Water Sciences and Engineering Lab, bolstered by recently announced federal funding totaling $963,000. Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan announced the funding during a March 27 press event at the water sciences lab. 

“PFAS is such an unknown chemical at the moment,” Gavin Denhert, an emerging contaminants scientist for the Wisconsin Sea Grant, told The Daily Cardinal. “The more we learn the more we’re able to make better educated assumptions about it. So it’s a very difficult field in the sense that we’re following a moving target.”

What are PFAS?

Dubbed by scientists as “forever chemicals,” PFAS compounds pose a formidable environmental challenge due to their extensive use in numerous consumer products and their persistence in the environment. 

Exposure to PFAS can lead to various health issues, including changes in cholesterol and liver enzyme levels, potential effects on infant birth weight, alterations in the immune system’s response to vaccines, higher risks of preeclampsia and high blood pressure during pregnancy, and increased chances of developing certain cancers like kidney and testicular cancer.  

With current methods able to detect only a mere 40 out of over 9,000 PFAS chemicals, according to Wisconsin Public Radio, leading science experts say there’s an urgent need to ramp up research capabilities in this domain.

Denhart said adaptable strategies are needed to combat PFAS contamination, given the issue’s severity and dynamic nature.

“The most difficult part with PFAS research is it’s moving at a very rapid rate, so we’re learning a lot. And that’s changing a lot of the health recommendations, or it’s changing a lot of how we proceed in the remediation of this, or how we get it out of the system,” Denhert added. 

How will UW-Madison’s new initiative help?

The PFAS center’s objectives are straightforward: to pinpoint PFAS compounds that elude current detection methods, and to develop strategies to mitigate and reverse the environmental havoc wrought by these substances, according to the Wisconsin Sea Grant. 

Federal funding is facilitating a critical investment: the procurement of a mass spectrometer. This pivotal tool will empower Sea Grant researchers to broaden their analytical horizons and delve deeper into the complexities of PFAS contamination, the program said in a release.

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Beyond its research aims, the center is primed to make tangible contributions to the local academic and scientific community. According to UW-Madison, the funding will facilitate recruitment of graduate and postdoctoral students to conduct research on PFAS samples while simultaneously enhancing the lab’s capacity to process samples efficiently — a task that presently demands labor-intensive effort. 

The center’s establishment advances the ongoing battle against PFAS contamination and the protection of water resources as communities grapple with the wide-ranging impacts of PFAS, from health concerns to environmental degradation. 

“It is a problem that we need to address but it’s going to be okay if we limit the amount of PFAS in the future,” Denhert said, offering a note of optimism despite a daunting task ahead.

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