Forever Chemicals: The effects of PFAS and how to protect against it

Podcast: Science With a Twist

Episode Summary

Water is the source of life. Still, we live in a world where some people have limited access to drinking water, and let’s not forget the horror stories about oil or chemical spills that raise additional concerns regarding the state of our water systems.

This episode of Science With a Twist is dedicated to the importance of testing water for PFAS. Our guest is Dr. Lee Ferguson, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke University.

Dr. Ferguson and host John Lesica discuss the impact of PFAS on our water supplies, what it means for us as consumers, and how testing can benefit communities now and in the future.

Video Highlight

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Guest Profile

Dr. Lee Ferguson

Associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke University


Noteworthy: Dr. Ferguson's lab focuses on detecting, identifying, and quantifying emerging contaminants, including endocrine-disrupting chemicals and pharmaceuticals in wastewater and drinking water. Using modern analytical testing techniques to develop methods for trace-level analysis with high-resolution mass spectrometry, Professor Ferguson's lab is at the forefront of environmental testing.


Where to find him: LinkedIn

Quotation marks
“PFAS is not just one chemical. This is a universe of many possible compounds; some say upwards of 3,000 to 4,000 potential chemicals. From a technological standpoint, it's difficult to analyze all those compounds simultaneously.”

Dr. Lee Ferguson
Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Duke University

Key Insights

PFAS stands for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances. Simply put, PFAS are man-made compounds synthesized in a laboratory. "They were first made in the 1940s. Teflon was one of the very first developments of PFAS. PFAS is a universe of chemicals useful for lots of different consumer and industrial applications over the last 60 to 70 years. These include things like firefighting foam, stain repellents on carpets and textiles, and also mist suppressants to protect workers in chromium plating activities."


Over 96% of Americans have PFAS in their blood. The statistics may seem concerning, however, Dr. Ferguson shares advice on how we can minimize exposure to these chemicals. "My kids and wife always tell me I cook like an 80-year-old grandmother. I use cast iron pots, stainless steel, and no Teflon in the kitchen. Also, choose a water filter that can help to remove PFAS. And then, in terms of the products you buy, things like clothing. Try to avoid things that have fluoridated stain repellents on them. That does a couple of things. First of all, it protects you because you've chosen a material that doesn't contain PFAS, but it also puts pressure on the manufacturer."

Quotation marks
“We're still learning what it takes to remove PFAS from water once it's there, and we're also still learning the major sources and risks of PFAS to water supplies. The only way to tell whether there's significant exposure in a particular community, a private well, or water supply is to test for it.”

Dr. Lee Ferguson
Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Duke University

Episode Highlights

Dr. Ferguson's area of focus

"For the last 20 years, I have been working on the issue of emerging contaminants in our water supplies. And this is a major issue, not only here in the United States but around the world.

One of the things that have driven me over the past 20 years in my academic career is trying to understand what we don't know about water quality and dig deeper into some of the compounds and pollutants that might have been ignored up until now.


And it's been a journey from the beginning of my graduate days, working in New York on contaminants in New York Harbor. I've started to understand the important role that analytical chemistry plays in water quality testing."

PFAS are called "forever chemicals" for a reason

"They do not significantly degrade under environmental conditions. Here's an example: chemicals we make in our production facilities, in our laboratories, when released out in the environment, accumulate over time.

And the more we make, the more they enter the environment.


Now, that wouldn't be such a huge problem if they were sequestered in soils or sediments somewhere far away from human consumption. But the problem with PFAS that makes them relatively unique is that not only are they persistent, but they're extremely mobile, and they tend to be water-soluble.


And they end up in our drinking water supplies. They turn out to be difficult to remove using conventional water treatment technologies."

The best way to test for PFAS

"Our most productive way to work is in a hybrid approach where we have some of our laboratories devoted to doing what we call targeted PFAS analysis. And in that case, we know what we're looking for. [...]


So we prioritize based on PFAS compounds that we know to be present or that we know might be present in a sample. And we can do a very accurate and sensitive job of measuring those chemicals in water and wastewater in landfill, leachates, and other environmental systems.


So our laboratory does a lot of that, and we can do it quickly. We can turn around these analyses in a matter of hours."

To learn more about Thermo Fisher’s role in PFAS testing, please visit our PFAS testing page here.