Superfund Research Program

April 2019

Heat map showing risk of PFAS contamination in Rhode Island
The Brown University SRP Center team used its tool to help the Rhode Island Department of Health identify hot spots with high risk of PFAS contamination, shown in red. (Image courtesy of the Brown University SRP Center)

Researchers from the Brown University Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center designed a geospatial tool and database to map and identify areas in Rhode Island that are likely to be contaminated with toxic waste.

Modeled off research by Community Engagement Core Leader Scott Frickel, Ph.D., tracking industrial hazards in four cities, the team looked at historical data to identify areas of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) and other hazardous waste contamination in Providence, Rhode Island. PFAS can result from the use of aqueous film forming foams at airports, military installations, and firefighting training sites and also have been used in consumer products. PFAS, which are very stable and do not readily break down in the environment, have been found in several drinking water systems and have been linked to potential reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, and immunological health effects.

Frickel was joined by Brown SRP trainee Tom Marlow, who worked with collaborators to create the algorithm, and former Engineering State Agencies Liaison Jennifer Guelfo, Ph.D., who led the sampling effort and worked with Marlow to develop a risk index. A risk index refers to the criteria for labeling different areas as high or low risk for contamination. The algorithm extracts data from historical directories to map toxic waste sites.

This new tool helped the team understand how the geography of hazardous waste changes over time, where contaminants remain, and how populations have changed, leading some groups to be more highly exposed than others. Working with the Brown SRP team, the Rhode Island Department of Health used this analysis to select sites to sample and test for PFAS contamination.

Moving forward, the team plans to replicate its study in Ohio and to use its findings to inform decision making related to ecology, hydrology, and transportation.