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
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."
"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."
"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."
"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.