The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently awarded nearly $1.6 million in research funding to University of Georgia’s Jack Huang to research cost-effective treatments to remove per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from water, wastewater and biosolids to ensure safe water for drinking and agricultural application in rural areas. Huang, a professor in the department of Crop and Soil Sciences on the UGA Griffin campus, is one of only three research teams to receive funding from the EPA.
According to a press release from the EPA, the grants — provided to UGA, Indiana University and Purdue University —, aim to further develop the agency’s implementation of the PFAS Action Plan, the most comprehensive cross-agency plan ever to address an emerging chemical of concern. PFAS are defined as emerging manmade compounds that were discovered to be toxic in the last 20 years, although they have been around for much longer. PFAS are formed from chemicals used in carpet treatment, fabric treatment, firefighting, fire retardant and Teflon cookware, among other sources. The chemicals are designed to be robust and not breakdown easily. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans.
Huang’s team consists of investigators from UGA, Georgia Institute of Technology and UGA Cooperative Extension. The project will consist of collecting water samples from across the nation; conducting experiments to evaluate and improve the efficiency of a state-of-the-art treatment process; developing treatment trains appropriate for treating different water qualities in rural settings; performing pilot studies to validate the treatment; and engaging communities through Extension to communicate research results.
“I have a very talented team to work with,” said Huang. “I am very lucky and honored to have this project be chosen by the EPA.”
This project not only impacts Georgia, but states nationwide which is why the team will be testing water from different areas of the country. Once they have their results, they plan to work with extension agencies in others states to share their findings.
“We will work with other states through extension. I think this is a very important component of the project and I feel it is one of our strengths. Our team has different areas of expertise that work well together,” Huang added.
Huang noted while other countries — such as Canada, Europe and Australia — have already established regulations on the use of chemicals that create PFAS, the United States wants to make sure the correct technology is in place to handle the regulations before requiring them. Many industries have voluntarily begun to phase out the use of the chemicals, but it is the long life of these chemicals that creates problems in the environment, especially when it comes to farming. If a farming practice is using contaminated water, it could act as a pathway for the PFASs to enter the food chain. In addition to water, Huang and his team will also be studying the effects of treatment on biosolids, as they are created through wastewater and water treatment, and could contain the PFAS. If the biosolids contain PFAS and are applied to fields as fertilizer, they could further impact the environment.
The team’s proposal for the project acknowledges an “urgent need for effective and economic treatment methods based on scientifically sound understanding of the occurrence, fate and transport of PFASs from water/wastewater and biosolids/residual in rural areas.” Of the three projects approved for funding from the EPA, this project is the only one to focus on the treatment of the PFASs. The three-year grant will support research conducted at the UGA Griffin campus, UGA Athens campus and the Georgia Institute of Technology.