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EPA awards UGA’s Huang nearly $1.6 million for pollutant research

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently awarded nearly $1.6 million in research funding to University of Georgia’s Jack Huang to research cost-effective treatments to remove per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from water, wastewater and biosolids to ensure safe water for drinking and agricultural application in rural areas. Huang, an associate professor in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Department of Crop and Soil Sciences on the UGA Griffin campus, is one of only three researchers whose teams received funding from the EPA.

According to a press release from the EPA, the grants — provided to UGA, Indiana University and Purdue University — aim to further develop the agency’s implementation of the PFAS Action Plan, the most comprehensive cross-agency plan ever to address an emerging chemical of concern. PFAS are defined as emerging man-made chemicals that were discovered to be toxic in the last 20 years, although they have been around for much longer. PFAS are formed from compounds used in carpet and fabric treatment, firefighting, fire retardant and Teflon cookware, among other sources. The chemicals are designed to be robust and not break down easily. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans.

Huang’s team consists of investigators from the Georgia Institute of Technology, UGA and UGA Cooperative Extension. The project will consist of collecting water samples from across the nation; conducting experiments to evaluate and improve the efficiency of a state-of-the-art treatment process; developing treatment trains appropriate for treating different water qualities in rural settings; performing pilot studies to validate the treatments; and engaging communities through Extension to communicate research results.

“I have a very talented team to work with,” said Huang. “I am very lucky and honored to have this project be chosen by the EPA.”

This project impacts Georgia as well as states nationwide, which is why the team will be testing water from different areas of the country. Once the investigators have their results, they plan to work with extension agencies in other states to share their findings.

“We will work with other states through extension. I think this is a very important component of the project and I feel it is one of our strengths. Our team has different areas of expertise that work well together,” Huang added.

Huang noted that while other places — including Canada, Europe and Australia —  have already established regulations on the use of chemicals that create PFAS, the U.S. wants to make sure the correct technology is in place to handle the regulations before requiring them.

Many industries have voluntarily begun to phase out the use of the chemicals, but it is the long life of these chemicals that creates problems in the environment, especially when it comes to farming. If a farming practice is using contaminated water, it could act as a pathway for PFAS to enter the food chain.

In addition to water, Huang and his team will be studying the effects of treatment on biosolids, as they are created through wastewater and water treatment and could contain PFAS. If the biosolids contain PFAS and are applied to fields as fertilizer, they could further impact the environment.

The team’s proposal for the project acknowledges an “urgent need for effective and economic treatment methods based on scientifically sound understanding of the occurrence, fate and transport of PFAS from water/wastewater and biosolids/residual in rural areas.” Of the three projects approved for funding from the EPA, this project is the only one to look at treatment of PFAS. The three-year grant will support research conducted at UGA's Griffin and Athens campuses and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

For more information on the work being performed in Huang’s lab, visit site.caes.uga.edu/huanglab. To learn more about PFAS, visit epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas.

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