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Christy Remucal
June 5, 2024

Finding PFAS: New Center of Excellence will amplify ability to detect and identify ‘forever chemicals’

Written By: Alex Holloway

Federal support is helping the University of Wisconsin-Madison broaden its ability to study potentially harmful “forever chemicals” that are infiltrating our soil and water.

Christy Remucal, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UW-Madison, says nearly $1 million in federal funding will support establishing a PFAS Center of Excellence at the university. It will fund a major equipment upgrade in the Water Science and Engineering Laboratory that will bolster cross-campus efforts to study per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals. Funding for the center, along with several other research projects at UW-Madison, was included in a set of bipartisan bills signed into law by President Biden to fund the federal government through Sept. 30.

Remucal, who also is interim director of the UW-Madison Aquatic Sciences Center, is leading the new center.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan announced the funding at an on-campus event in late March 2024.

PFAS are a class of widely used chemicals found in everything from consumer products like popcorn bags and nonstick cookware to certain firefighting foams. Some PFAS chemicals break down very slowly, which means if they get into the natural environment, they remain there for years. They’re also mobile, meaning they can move through the ground or bodies of water. For example, in late 2022, Remucal’s research group published a study about a PFAS plume that moved into Green Bay and Lake Michigan through groundwater.

“There are more than 9,000 different PFAS chemicals,” Remucal says. “We don’t actually know exactly how many there are yet. With the current instrumentation we have on campus, we can measure about 40 different PFAS chemicals, and of course, 40 out of 9,000 is not a lot. This new high-resolution instrumentation will allow us to detect many more, including new PFAS that have not been studied yet.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Agency for Toxic Substances, PFAS chemicals may interfere with the human body’s natural hormones, increase cholesterol, adversely affect the immune system and increase the risk of some cancers. PFAS have been found in the blood of 99 percent of Americans and are present in water in cities across the United States. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources maintains an interactive map that shows known PFAS contamination sites across the state.

A new high-resolution mass spectrometer is headlining the new batch of equipment coming to the center. Using the new spectrometer, researchers will be able to measure the chemical makeup of samples precisely to help identify PFAS materials they don’t yet know or have exact chemical standards for.

That’s important because it will allow researchers to essentially be PFAS forensic scientists. For example, with the equipment currently available on campus, they might be able to confirm that PFAS chemicals are present in a lake. With the more sensitive equipment, they could identify PFAS chemicals unique to different sources like firefighting foam or leachate from a landfill. While it’s difficult to remove PFAS chemicals from the environment once they’re there (thanks to the same properties that make them so durable in the first place), identifying their sources is vital for curtailing further contamination.

The funding will also allow researchers to purchase equipment to automate parts of the sample analysis process. “The concentrations of PFAS in environmental samples are often at parts-per-trillion,” Remucal says. “That’s like looking for one drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools. To do that, we have to concentrate our samples, which is very time consuming. We are looking forward to having automated equipment to help streamline sample processing.”

The new instrumentation will be housed within the Water Science and Engineering Laboratory’s Core Facility for Advanced Water Analysis. The Core Facility serves researchers from across UW-Madison and beyond, and Remucal says that will extend to PFAS research.

“Our model for this Core Facility is both to advance research and to train graduate students, postdocs and even undergraduate researchers,” she says. “We want people to come in and learn how to process their samples and analyze data, so this new equipment will be available to everyone on campus who wants to get trained and learn to use it for their research.”

Featured image: CEE Professor Christy Remucal. Credit: Joel Hallberg.