'Growing Impact' examines PFAS water contamination, evaluation of existing tech

March 4, 2024

Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared on Penn State News.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The latest episode of the "Growing Impact" podcast explores PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) and their impact on drinking water. For decades, PFAS have been manufactured and used in thousands of products that people use every day. Emerging evidence has associated PFAS exposure with potential negative health outcomes. This prompted a research team to evaluate existing technologies, designed to decontaminate drinking water, to determine if they can also remove PFAS. This project aims to safeguard drinking water, especially in communities reliant on well water. 

“Because our analytical detection methods have gotten so much better, PFAS are basically showing up wherever we look for them,” said Heather Preisendanz, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering. "This primarily is in water and wastewater, which is where there's a lot of heightened interest right now.” 

PFAS, known as "forever chemicals," have strong bonds that do not break down easily in the environment or human body. 

“Some studies have been done on the cost of removing and extracting PFAS at the wastewater treatment community level, and it is quite expensive,” said Juliana Vasco-Correa, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering. “It costs thousands of dollars to make a pound of PFAS, but it costs millions to destroy it.” 

There appears to be a higher incidence of PFAS contamination in well water near airports, military bases and firefighting training sites. This may be associated to PFAS-containing firefighting foams that are used on these sites, as mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration, with no substitution available until recently.   

“There's a common misconception that well water is free of pollution, but some wells in Pennsylvania are contaminated with chemicals or pathogens from nearby septic systems or other emerging contaminants, such as PFAS,” said Faith Kibuye, a Penn State water resources extension associate. “As a result, well owners may utilize a point-of-use water treatment system to treat their water to meet drinking water standards.” 

The team is interested in evaluating different technologies and their potential to remove PFAS. 

“Our goal is to demonstrate the effectiveness of PFAS removal by various existing technologies,” said Enrique Gomez, professor of chemical engineering. “The hope is to provide communities with cost-effective solutions for PFAS filtration.” 

Estimates indicate that there are more than 15,000 different types of PFAS, presenting a significant challenge in developing a single effective filter for all variants. 

“We're trying to understand some of the different ways PFAS behave with different treatment technologies,” said Stephanie Velegol, teaching professor of chemical engineering. “Then we can use that understanding to improve the design of the filters and test different variables about filters design and operation, including flow rates. That will help create a system of knowledge that can be provided to consumers of the products, as well as other scientists and engineers who want to move that work forward.” 

"Growing Impact" is a podcast by the Institute of Energy and the Environment (IEE) at Penn State. It features Penn State researchers who have been awarded IEE seed grants and discusses their foundational work as they further their projects. The podcast is available on multiple platforms, including YouTube, Apple, Google, Amazon and Spotify. 


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