Researchers from the University of Connecticut (UConn) are embarking on a study of PFAS off the coast of New Haven as part of a larger project studying water contamination along the eastern seaboard.
Christopher Perkins, the laboratory director for UConn’s Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering was awarded more than $100,000 in grant money from the school’s Connecticut Sea Grant program to study PFAS uptake in shellfish and fish. The project is focused on urban waterways off the coast of New Haven.
According to Connecticut Sea Grants, the area was chosen by Perkins “because it is a source of seed oysters for commercial shellfishing and hosts a subsistence fishing community.” The area is also host to Tweed-New Haven airport which poses a potential risk for contamination from aircraft.
PFAS – or Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances – are chemicals that resist grease, oil, water, and heat. They are a main component of Teflon kitchenware and commonly turn up in stain and water-resistant fabrics. They are also sometimes found in the turnouts worn by firefighters.
There are thousands of chemical compounds that all qualify as PFAS and while they differ from each other they all have one thing in common: they do not degrade easily and can build up in the bloodstreams of individuals. They are also ubiquitous. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 97% of Americans have PFAS in their blood.
“Airports can be a leading source of PFAS contamination in surrounding communities,” notes PACE, a PFAS testing provider. A foam used to fight fires started by aviation fuel is a common source of the substance. Those chemicals can then become hazardous runoff during wet weather.
PFAS are a major health concern because they are associated with multiple health effects. These range from increased cholesterol and changes in liver enzymes to increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer as well as an increased risk of pre-eclampsia in pregnant women. There are also potentially dangerous effects in children including low birth weight, birth defects, and decreased vaccine response.
The Food and Drug Administration has taken a special interest in PFAS contamination in food sources, both plant and animal. While most produce (97%) has been found to be PFAS free, the FDA has discovered at least one type of PFAS in between 41-74% of sampled seafood. The agency is planning a second targeted seafood study for later this year.
Perkins’ study will focus specifically on seafood products sourced from Connecticut and includes public outreach and education for affected communities in an effort to mitigate any possible negative effects. It is one of four different projects studying “Contaminants of Emerging Concern” across the east coast. Others targeting different contaminants will take place in Virginia, Rhode Island, and Vermont and New York. All are part of a larger effort to understand emerging water contamination which began in 2021.
“Contaminants of Emerging Concern are by definition under-studied and not well regulated,” says Sylvain De Guise, director of Connecticut Sea Grant, principal investigator on the CEC project, and professor of pathobiology told UConn Today. “These studies will enhance our understanding of CECs and help protect environmental and human health, which are closely related.”