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May 15, 2024

Collection of USGS-related articles from the Chesapeake Quarterly: Volume 23, Number 1 (May 2024)

Strong, Sticky, and Tricky to Measure

How Researchers Track Environmental PFAS

By Madeleine Jepsen | April 25, 2024

"When researchers measure PFAS in water, the first step is ensuring that their sampling tools and lab instruments are free of PFAS. The useful characteristics that have made this group of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances so commonplace in household items mean that these compounds are also used in Teflon-lined water sampling containers or bottle lids, lab tubing, and the waterproof jackets researchers might wear for rainy fieldwork.

The US Environmental Protection Agency and the researchers they collaborate with follow established, dependable methods for detecting PFAS in drinking water samples. Through these methods, they could even measure a single drop of PFAS in the water from 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools—a detection level known as parts per trillion. 

But detecting PFAS in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay is a more complicated matter, says Emily Majcher, a hydrologist with the US Geological Survey and co-chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Toxic Contaminants Workgroup..."


Flying Higher Up the Food Web

By Madeleine Jepsen | April 25, 2024

"When it comes to PFAS, humans have options. People concerned about PFAS, the group of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances shown to have negative health effects, can avoid certain household items, replace their cookware, and filter their drinking water. By following fish consumption advisories issued by state agencies, we can even avoid eating certain fish that have accumulated PFAS in their tissue...

...As part of their work to investigate this exposure, Suski and Salice are sampling PFAS concentrations in pond water, aquatic insects, and the wrens and swallows living near three water bodies contaminated with PFAS. 

Ultimately, they plan to create a model of the birds’ exposure based on their field studies. They are also sharing data across projects, so that each model incorporates field data from Etterson, Salice, Suski, and US Geological Survey Researcher Christine Custer. Suski and Salice’s model is designed to predict the probabilistic exposure of PFAS to different birds...

...Some researchers like US Geological Survey Ecologist Natalie Karouna-Renier are also taking a creative tack to study how PFAS accumulate in birds: she’s analyzing historic samples already collected as part of other avian studies. Samples stored in ultra-cold freezers, like the osprey plasma samples Karouna-Renier is analyzing for PFAS, can be studied for years. Karouna-Renier is also planning to analyze tissue samples from bald eagles and kestrel collected by other researchers in the field..."


Diagnosing the PFAS Problem

Scientists Investigate So-Called ‘Forever Chemicals’ in the Chesapeake Bay

By Ashley Goetz | May 8, 2024

"...PFAS, perhaps most commonly known by their nickname, “forever chemicals,” are a vast group of human-made chemicals found in common household products, like nonstick pans, carpets, cosmetics, and fast-food packaging. They are widespread, long-lasting, and in some cases, toxic. Studies have shown that even at very low levels, certain PFAS can harm people and wildlife.

To correctly diagnose the PFAS problem, researchers need to understand how these chemicals behave once they get into the environment. 'We often refer to that as fate and transport,' says Chris Higgins, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines who has been studying PFAS since 2001. In short, fate and transport is the life cycle of a chemical in the environment—how a chemical changes as it moves through the environment and where it ends up.

Across the country, including throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, researchers are trying to piece together the fate and transport of PFAS. But PFAS behave differently than many legacy toxic chemicals like mercury and PCBs, and they are driving researchers to think about toxic contaminants in new ways...

...From 2020 through 2022, the Maryland Department of the Environment sampled more than 450 of the state’s community water systems for PFAS. Those systems serve nearly 90% of Maryland’s population. They found that 16% of the systems have higher levels of PFAS than the EPA’s proposed limit of 4 ppt. The agency works with communities to find alternate water sources, install treatment processes, and obtain funding and technical assistance.

'Due to the human health effects, monitoring in the [Chesapeake Bay] region for PFAS has been largely focused on drinking water, and rightfully so,' says Emily Majcher, a hydrologist with the US Geological Survey and co-chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Toxic Contaminants Workgroup...

...As Maryland’s fish consumption advisories indicate, PFAS can move from the environment into wildlife—and ultimately onto our plates. But which species accumulate PFAS? And how do the chemicals affect them? Investigating these questions could help inform public health and wildlife management. US Geological Survey researchers Vicki Blazer and Heather Walsh are looking for answers in the Chesapeake Bay’s smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu). Blazer and Walsh’s team had amassed a number of smallmouth bass blood and tissue samples from a previous study. They decided to look back at these archived samples, collected from two sites in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River and two sites in the Potomac River in Maryland and West Virginia, to see if they could detect PFAS.

'And, indeed, we did find them,' says Blazer. 'That initial study made it clear that we did need to continue to look at PFAS as a potential contaminant of concern for smallmouth bass health,' she adds..."

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