Researchers test drinking water and face masks for PFAS | News | Notre Dame News


Graham Peaslee in the lab

University of Notre Dame scientists studying the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in consumer products and textiles have expanded their search for potential sources of PFAS exposure – by developing an effective method of testing of PFAS in drinking water and adding face masks to a growing list of products tested for the toxic class of chemicals.

Known as the “eternal chemicals”, PFAS do not biodegrade naturally. Studies have shown that the chemicals persist in the environment, contaminate groundwater systems, and can accumulate in the bloodstream. PFAS have been linked to reproductive problems, low birth weight, thyroid problems, weakened immune system and increased risk of kidney, prostate and testicular cancers.

A new method for measuring PFAS in drinking water

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced several health advisories regarding PFAS in drinking water as part of its strategic roadmap to address PFAS contamination nationwide. The agency said that when reviewing lifetime exposure, “certain negative health effects may occur with PFOA or PFOS concentrations in water close to zero,” according to the scientific findings.

Testing PFAS at low concentrations has been a challenge because EPA-approved methods require very sensitive instrumentation and can be time-consuming.

In the laboratory of Graham Peasleea physics professor at Notre Dame, researchers have developed a rapid method that can effectively measure all levels of PFAS at concentrations as low as 35 parts per trillion using activated carbon felt, gravity filtration and carbon emission spectroscopy. Particle Induced Gamma Rays (PIGE). This method allows rapid, accurate and cost-effective screening for the presence of PFAS in drinking water.

“The development of a field screening tool to rapidly measure the presence of all kinds of soluble PFAS in drinking water, and at environmentally relevant concentrations, could be a game-changer in terms of identifying communities at risk,” Peaslee said.

Face masks pose no risk – in most cases

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, face masks have become a common household item. And for many, including healthcare workers and first responders, they are part of the job, too. In addition to protecting wearers from inhaling various particles, some face masks are designed to be water and heat resistant — and that’s what prompted Peaslee and his lab to take a closer look. PFAS chemicals are often used by manufacturers for their water resistance and film-forming properties, “and we wanted to know if they were used in personal protective equipment that is so widely used,” said Peaslee.

Researchers from Notre Dame, Oregon State University, North Carolina State University and Michigan State University used PIGE testing and other techniques to study a small sample of face masks — just nine in total, including four different types: single-use surgical disposable masks, N95 masks and reusable cloth masks. One of the masks was specifically marketed to firefighters.

Five of the nine masks contained PFAS, but most levels were low enough that the results were not cause for concern.

The highest amounts were detected in multi-layer masks intended for firefighters. This could increase the risk of exposure that firefighters face following studies that found significant amounts of PFAS in personal protective equipment. Chemicals are also known to wash away gear, materials and surfaces – and can be inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin.

“PFAS are persistent and toxic chemicals, so we don’t want to find them in face masks,” Peaslee said. “The good news is that most people can feel good about the masks they wear and the decision to wear them. Manufacturers of these high-end cloth masks that contain higher amounts of PFAS should take action and switch to PFAS-free materials.

Peaslee’s lab at Notre Dame found the chemicals in fast food packaging, cosmetics, dental floss, child car seats and firefighting equipment, among other products. The results of these studies have led restaurant chains, retailers and manufacturers to seek alternative products to PFAS.

“These chemicals are still so widely used,” Peaslee said. “We hope these studies will help consumers identify products that are safe and encourage manufacturers who use PFAS to stop using them.”

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