NORTH KINGSTOWN – Polluted drinking water will be the target of a new University of Rhode Island research center whose operations will be funded by an $8 million, five-year National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences grant, announced the university Tuesday.
Over the next five years URI Graduate School of Oceanography professor Rainer Lohmann, an expert in marine pollutants, will direct a national network of Superfund Research Program centers. The group will study how fluorinated pollutants or poly- and perfluorinated alkyl substances, known as PFASs, chemicals found in nonstick cookware and firefighting foam, seep into the water supply and harm humans.
Lohmann said in a statement the new URI-led center will “work closely with communities and scientists to share our knowledge and help inform people and agencies about this growing problem.”
He added: “I’m very proud that the center will train young scholars at URI and Harvard to make the world a healthier place.”
These chemicals, which according to URI, can be found in landfills, manufacturing sites, airports and fire-training sites, do not break down in air, water or sunlight and can travel long distances. While research into their impact has been minimal, and only discovered around 2000, human interaction with these chemicals has been linked to kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease, colitis and suppression of the immune system.
Researchers will include experts from Harvard University and Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass. The URI team is made up of Geoffrey Bothun, an associate professor of chemical engineering, Alyson McCann, URI Cooperative Extension water quality coordinator, Angela Slitt, associate professor, and Bongsup Cho, professor of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences, Judith Swift, professor of communication studies and director of the Coastal Institute, along with the institute’s assistant director Nicole Rohr and digital media specialist Amber Neville.
“Our job is to translate the science into a language the public can understand,” says Swift in prepared remarks. “We’re the bridge between what’s happening in the science world and the public—and others in the science community.”
Their focus will center on the groundwater accessed by towns surrounding Cape Cod’s Joint Base military training site. Residents will be informed of the findings and, if necessary, steps will be taken to reduce exposure to the pollutants.