Researchers seeking private well owners in 4 states for study of PFAS in well water

A research team from Indiana University and the nonprofit research institute RTI International is seeking help from “citizen scientists” in four states for its study of a group of chemicals known as PFAS in private wells.

Supported by a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, the researchers will provide free testing kits to households in Washington, North Carolina, Indiana and Minnesota whose drinking water comes from private wells, enabling residents to collect and provide water samples for testing.

PFAS is an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which have been used for about 80 years in common household products, particularly those that are stain- and water-resistant. They have been associated with numerous health problems, including high blood pressure, thyroid disorders and specific cancers. Because they do not easily degrade, they are often referred to as “forever chemicals.”

“PFAS contaminants last a long time in the environment and have been found as far away as the North Pole, but we know very little about where and how often they occur in private well water,” said Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington, who is principal investigator on the project. Amina Salamova, an associate scientist at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, is co-investigator.

“With 13% of the U.S. population getting their drinking water from private wells, filling this information gap is very important to making sure everyone has access to safe drinking water,” MacDonald Gibson added.

Residents in Spokane County, Washington; Robeson County, North Carolina; Monroe County, Indiana; and Washington County, Minnesota, will receive postcards inviting them to participate in the study.

The Washington, Minnesota and North Carolina counties were selected because each is the site of a major PFAS user or producer. Monroe County, Indiana, is included as a comparison to understand private well water vulnerability to PFAS contamination from scattered but common sources like septic tanks. Community leaders and residents of these four counties have been involved in study planning.

Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson
Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

Unlike in the other communities, some residents of Washington County, Minnesota, are already eligible for free PFAS water testing by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency as part of the state’s legal settlement with 3M Corp. The settlement was reached in 2010 in response to state concerns that PFAS from 3M landfills had contaminated local water supplies.

The IU-RTI research team is communicating with the state and with local governments in Minnesota, but the team’s study is independent of state and local agencies. Minnesota residents who participate in the IU-RTI study will still be eligible for state-provided water testing and response actions, such as access to bottled water, household water filters or city water connections.

To learn more about the study and to inquire about enrolling, visit Clean Water for US Kids. Residents of the four communities may be eligible even if they did not receive a postcard from the research team.

The researchers will notify selected residents by email, U.S. mail or phone. Selected residents will get a free water test kit with instructions on how to collect and ship samples, and they will receive personalized but confidential test results.

“We really look forward to connecting with residents interested in participating as citizen scientists to identify PFAS in rural well water,” said Jennifer Hoponick Redmon, a senior environmental health scientist at RTI who is co-principal investigator on the study. “Our hope is that this research helps us better predict and communicate where PFAS exists in well water across the U.S.”

Chamindu Liyanapatirana, an analytical research chemist at RTI, is also a co-investigator and will analyze water samples for PFAS using state-of-the-art methods.

What the partners are saying:

“This is a great opportunity for private well owners. These test results will either give residents peace of mind or the knowledge that action needs to be taken to ensure their home has safe drinking water.” — Mike LaScuola, environmental health specialist at Spokane Regional Health District.

“Water is sacred to indigenous peoples and others who live here in Robeson County, North Carolina. Water is vital to tribal subsistence, cultural practices, health and welfare, agricultural production, and economic development.” — Beverly Collins-Hall, principal chief of the Cherokees.

“We are pleased to partner with the Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington to test private wells in the county for PFAS. Because we do not currently test for PFAS, this will allow us to provide more comprehensive service to the community.” — Penny Caudill, health administrator for Monroe County, Indiana.

The results of this study “will improve the overall health of our area.” — Bill Smith, director of public health for Robeson County.

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