Superfund Research Program
Studying AFFF Fate and Exposure to Pursue Outcomes that Restore Trust: SAFE PORT
Project Leader: Carla A. Ng
Grant Number: R21ES034701
Funding Period: 2022-2023
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are highly persistent and toxic chemicals implicated in liver toxicity, various cancers, and immune suppression. PFAS have long been used as active ingredients in specialized firefighting foams. In late July 2021, PFAS-containing firefighting foam was inadvertently introduced into the drinking water system of the Lower 10th Ward of McKeesport, PA, affecting approximately 500 residents in this environmental justice community. Currently, little is known about how this substance behaves within premise plumbing. The research team's preliminary investigation in December 2021 of residential tap water found two out of 15 homes with PFAS levels well above state and federal guidelines for health, indicating that the contamination has persisted in the premise plumbing despite actions by the water utility to flush the distribution lines. The overall goal of this project is to determine the extent to which PFAS is present in the tap water of the community and surrounding surface soils (due to hydrant flushing) and to evaluate the efficacy of interventions to reduce PFAS exposure. The researchers hypothesize that PFAS-containing firefighting foams can form or incorporate into deposits in residential pipes, leading to long-term exposure to residents. Moreover, they expect that flushing hydrants to clear contamination from the distribution system will have led to surface contamination of surrounding soils, providing another route of potential exposure for humans and wildlife. The researches are using a combination of water and soil testing to determine the extent of contamination, as well as estimate PFAS loads from residential taps by analyzing water filters put in place following the contamination event and by deploying new filters with flow meters. Finally, they are working with key stakeholders in the community and the region to develop a network and model for engagement among residents, utilities, first responders, scientific experts and regulatory agencies. The specific aims are: (1) Determine the extent of contamination in the lower 10th Ward, (2) Test the efficacy of interventions on reducing PFAS exposures over time, and (3) Develop a Community-Led Engagement and Response (CLEaR) framework. The broad impacts of this project are to develop and disseminate best practices to reduce community exposures following a firefighting foam contamination event, and to improve the social and practical infrastructure for community-engaged environmental health emergency response in a sustainable way.