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What Are PFAS?

Play list of 8 videos about PFAS:

Lear more about PFAS

Watch more about PFAS

Why is this a STEEP climb?

PFASs—or poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances—have been around since the 1950s, and were part of the “better living through chemistry” era. These chemicals first emerged in common household goods starting with Teflon and Scotchguard and including todays wrinkle free shirts and waterproof jackets. Americans were thrilled with products that made housekeeping easier, and continue to embrace products that reduce our being harnessed to repetitive household tasks.


While manufacturers may not have violated the safety standards of the time, in the 1980s, PFASs emerged as high-priority environmental contaminants. Then, in 2000, researchers recognized their ubiquitous occurrence in human blood and began to associate them with adverse health impacts. Today, a rapidly increasing number of contaminated sites are being discovered, often with highly elevated PFAS concentrations in drinking water. These often result from the use of aqueous film forming foams (AFFF) at airports, military and firefighting training sites. Moreover, PFASs are highly stable and do not break down quickly in the environment; consequently, they now result in worldwide food chain contamination.


Current evidence is often too scant to allow a constructive and targeted approach to remediation of contaminated sites, regardless of whether these sites are previously or newly identified. Drinking water for millions of Americans has PFAS concentrations that exceed the EPA health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt). Here’s where STEEP steps in with its plan to provide tools to aid the Superfund Research Program (SRP) to address the emerging problem of PFAS contaminated sites across the U.S. and elsewhere.

STEEP Research: Environmental Fingerprint STEEP Research: Detection Tools Environmental Engineering

STEEP will characterize sources of PFASs through in situ groundwater measurements combined with geochemical modeling to assess transport and fate, including chemometric approaches to fingerprint sources of PFASs as a function of distance from the contaminated site. In other words, STEEP will be a real-world CSI, figuring out where the PFASs are coming from, where they are going, and where they end up—both in humans and the environment.


STEEP Research: Childhood Risk STEEP Research: Metabolic Effects Human Health Impacts

Researchers will conduct parallel laboratory and human epidemiologic studies to assess the impact of in utero and early-life PFAS exposures on immune dysfunction and metabolic abnormalities. The relationship of PFASs will be used to derive benchmark dose levels to determine when PFAS levels move from less concerning to harmful.


STEEP Core: Community EngagementCommunity Engagement

Sites where high levels of PFASs can be found include firefighter training facilities that use aqueous film forming foams (AFFF).The use of AFFF for fire training activities on Cape Cod has led to contamination of public and private drinking water wells in Hyannis and other parts of the Cape. STEEP is engaging Cape Cod communities that have been exposed to elevated PFAS levels, and these sites mirror the situation at hundreds of other sites around the country.


STEEP Core: Research TranslationSpreading the word

STEEP will develop educational materials for communities on the human and environmental health impacts of PFASs. These will be based on the work of STEEP research projects, and designed to engage individuals and community leaders as they decide whether prevention or intervention is needed to reduce PFAS exposure. Outreach materials will range from social to traditional media, from documentaries to print materials, and serve audiences of diverse ages, backgrounds, and influence.


STEEP Core: Next Generation Passing the baton

We have moved from the age of “better living through chemistry” to the age of “better living through research,” and to ensure that environmental and human health challenges like PFASs are continuously addressed, STEEP is committed to training the next generation of scientists. The skills and knowledge that are passed on to these graduate students and post-docs today will enhance their ability to identify and hopefully mitigate these stable, long- living compounds in the future.


STEEP Core: AdministrativeLeadership is key

STEEP is led by co-directors from URI and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Health with guidance from the Internal and External Advisory Committees. This provides perspective that will improve the daily interaction between and among STEEP’s projects and cores. This core will ensure that STEEP is fully integrated with the NIEHS and SRP communities.


A Cautionary Tale

While it is too late for us to completely mitigate the impacts of PFASs, lessons learned through STEEP and other research will create a stronger impetus to analyze the potential harm of new chemicals before they are released into the environment. But this requires that regulatory standards are fully informed and ready to prevent harmful exposure. Currently, the chemical industry is developing and releasing slightly modified versions of PFASs (e.g., GenX) without sufficient self-regulation or government oversight. The result is a high-risk game of whack-a-mole.