GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Researchers from Michigan’s three universities that make up the University Research Corridor (URC) held a roundtable discussion today with community leaders and state and local lawmakers to discuss ways to deal with PFAS, the “forever” toxic fluorochemicals that have been found in thousands of contaminated areas around the state, including some in the Grand Rapids area.

URC experts ‒ including Cheryl Murphy, director of the Michigan State University Center for PFAS Research,  Wayne State University School of Medicine Assistant Professor Rodrigo Fernandez-Valdivia, and Suzanne Witt, a scientist who manages projects on treating PFAS-contaminated water sources at the Fraunhofer USA Center Midwest in East Lansing ‒ met at the MSU Grand Rapids Research Center to share ideas with Ann Erhardt of Public Sector Consultants, PFAS expert Matt Reeves of Western Michigan University, and state and local officials.

“Michigan has some of the highest PFAS levels in the nation, and many of the state’s streams, rivers, lakes and drinking water have been contaminated by these ‘forever chemicals,’” said Britany Affolter-Caine, URC executive director. “Researchers at URC universities are laser-focused on solving these challenges, learning from practitioners in the field and sharing what they know with lawmakers, community leaders and the public.”

An alliance of Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University, the URC has seen its institutions over the past five years conduct $493.8 million in environmental health research and service and $1.64 billion in infrastructure-related research.

During today’s roundtable, participants discussed research being conducted at the URC universities that’s leading to better ways to trap and destroy PFAS in water supplies and wastewater, create a PFAS detection sensor and help communities deal with PFAS-contaminated locations in their midst.

Murphy, a global research leader on PFAS, spoke about how she and her MSU colleagues are using grants from the state of Michigan and other entities to develop and test remedies for PFAS-contaminated sites and explore safe alternatives to PFAS chemicals.

“With so many sites around Michigan and the world contaminated with PFAS, it’s imperative that we discover new ways to deal with these chemicals and remove them from our soil and water to protect the health of humans and animals,” she said. “We work every day at the MSU Center for PFAS Research to find solutions that health care providers, community leaders and environmental experts can use to lessen the threat worldwide.”

Fernandez-Valdivia’s research team brings together collaborative efforts between the WSU Medical School and College of Engineering to study how PFAS exposure factors into various cancers, including lung and breast cancer.

“We know these chemicals can be dangerous to human health, but we’re still figuring out to how much exposure leads to cancer and what the underlying molecular mechanics and dynamics are,” he said. “With thousands of PFAS currently present in the United States, it’s important that we continue our research to find out more about the toxicity of various types of PFAS and what actions we can take to protect human health and the environment.”

Witt noted that Fraunhofer USA Center Midwest, in partnership with MSU, is researching and developing new ways to destroy PFAS in wastewater with an electrochemical treatment that turns PFAS into carbon dioxide, fluoride and water.

“The system we’ve developed still has a way to go before we can start sharing it with community wastewater treatment plants, but we’re on the cusp of developing a process that can remove PFAS from the environment,” Witt said. “We’re excited to be finding solutions that can make our communities and waterways cleaner and safer.”

State Sens. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, and Mark Huizenga, R-Walker, co-chaired Monday’s roundtable discussion. They said the collaboration with the three URC universities is showing how research done on campus has real-life applications for communities around the state, helping solve new challenges as they arise.

“PFAS contamination has deprived people in West Michigan of clean water and is a concern for anyone wondering about the health effects of these chemicals,” Brinks said. “Sharing information among experts from our research universities, communities and the private sector enables us to discuss real-world solutions and reduce our risks from PFAS in smarter, more efficient and effective ways.”

Huizenga noted that PFAS contamination has economic as well health implications, one reason Michigan has taken a lead role among states in the investigation, evaluation, assessment, cleanup and regulation of PFAS to limit exposure while preventing further contamination.

“Our cities, towns and the state of Michigan will struggle to compete if businesses and residents are worried about the safety of their drinking water,” he said. “We appreciate the vital work the URC universities are doing to find and share solutions, especially since many communities are trying to figure out what steps to take to deal with this emerging national problem.”

Monday’s roundtable discussion was the second of three stops in the URC’s Health Threats Tour that includes the release of a new URC report brief, Tackling Environmental Health Threats. The first stop on the tour took place April 19 at Wayne State University’s Integrative Biosciences Center and focused on dealing with the health implications of the flooding that has plagued Detroit and other communities. The tour will finish with a May 16 roundtable discussion in Traverse City addressing microplastics in the Great Lakes and other Michigan waterways.