Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances

The Social Discovery of a Class of Emerging Contaminants

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Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or PFASs) are a class of chemicals widely used in consumer products, industrial applications, manufacturing processes, and certain firefighting foams. PFASs have been detected in all corners of the Earth, contaminating the blood of virtually all Americans and even passing through the umbilical cord and into the womb [Zhang et al., 2013]. Exposure to certain PFASs has been linked to kidney and testicular cancers, birth defects, impairment of the immune system, heart and thyroid disease, complications during pregnancy, and other serious conditions [C8 Science Panel, 2012].

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Since the summer of 2015, a group of faculty, post-doctoral scholars, graduate students, and undergraduates affiliated with the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern have worked with Dr. Brown and Dr. Alissa Cordner on the National Science Foundation grant [SES-1456897] “Perflourinated Chemicals: The Social Discovery of a Class of Emerging Contaminants.” The group at Northeastern has included two Ph.D. students (Lauren Richter and Elicia Cousins), five co-op students (Sokona Diallo, Elizabeth Boxer, Yvette Niwa, Nick Chaves, and Clare Malone), one nursing student (Katherine Stewart-Schor), one masters of public health student (Marina Atlas) and one undergraduate volunteer (Matthew Kim). Additionally, Dr. Rebecca Altman and Dr. Matthew Judge completed doctoral dissertations with Dr. Brown related to this class of compounds.

Over the past year our research team has investigated the emergence of lay awareness, government involvement, media coverage, litigation, and advocacy. While the body of published literature on PFASs is significant, it was not until the more recent lay discovery of PFOA contamination in Hoosick Falls, NY that a rapid succession of discoveries of water contamination has spread throughout New England and now across the U.S. Our group collaborates with the Toxics Action Center, Silent Spring Institute, and the Green Science Policy Institute to track state, industry, and community responses to PFAS water contamination. Additionally, we are interviewing communities throughout New England dealing with this water contamination, and facilitating communication across communities and between lay people and environmental health scientists.

View the current research team here

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