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Fighting the Battle Against PFAS

How Associate Professor Carla Ng is Helping Tackle this Global Environmental Issue

How do you manage to address harmful, man-made substances—found in everything from food packaging to firefighting foam—that never naturally degrade? It’s a daunting task, but Associate Professor Carla Ng is on the case. 

Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are chemicals that are useful in a variety of industries because of their properties and durability, but do not naturally break down in the environment or human body. Ng, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, believes urgent action is needed to combat this growing crisis.

“It’s a little bit of an emergency now that we need to stop using these chemicals because they’re so persistent,” Ng told NPR. 

Ng has devoted much of her career to studying common sources of PFAS contamination—like food packaging—and collaborating to create roadmaps that reduce non-essential uses of PFAS, stop human and environmental exposure from getting worse, and more equitably distribute the associated costs.

“Humans are exposed to PFAS in a variety of ways, but depending on where you live, food is likely your primary source of exposure,” Ng explained. “There are many different types of PFAS, and we don’t have enough information on where they are used, in what quantities, and whether they’re toxic. My group is working to study those details.” 

Some of that work—funded by Ng’s NSF CAREER Award—seeks to address these issues through a complementary approach using predictive modeling and experiments. 

“Because we have so little information about potentially thousands of these substances, we cannot experimentally assess each one; the costs would simply be too great in time, testing, and resources,” Ng explained. “This is where models can be very powerful tools because they allow researchers to concurrently conduct virtual experiments on many chemicals. When these models are tied to targeted experiments, their predictions can be evaluated and the models improved to be more accurate.”

Beyond understanding the effects of these chemicals, models can also provide clues on how to remove them from the environment. For example, understanding what makes PFAS interact with biological materials in our bodies can help us design bio-inspired materials that can remove them from contaminated water. But because they are so pervasive, it’s important that researchers work together to focus on actionable insights.

“It is critical to prioritize our efforts so as not to be overwhelmed by the problem,” Ng said.