Alicia Timme-Laragy, associate professor of environmental health sciences, a developmental toxicologist with expertise in how early life exposures to pollutants affect health, recently hosted a workshop for elected officials and candidates on the health risks associated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals. “PFAS 101: Current Research and Health Risks” brought staff representing a number of state representatives and senators, Westfield city councilors, and staffers from Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey's office to campus to introduce legislators to the current state of research and raise awareness of the health risks associated with PFAS chemicals.
Dubbed “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment, PFAS are used worldwide in common household and industry goods, including nonstick cookware, water- and stain-resistant materials and food packaging. The chemicals are also used in aqueous film forming foams (AFFF) used at military training sites, including the nearby Westfield Barnes Air National Guard base. Contamination of drinking water and food and occupational exposures to over 5000 different types of PFAS have been found in Massachusetts to date, including at Barnes Air National Guard Base, Westfield, Danvers, Bedford, Ayer, Devens, Shirley, Abington, Joint Base Cape Cod, Mashpee and Hyannis. As testing expands, UMass researchers expect more sites to be identified, posing a major public health risk to the Commonwealth.
The PFAS 101 workshop included presentations by Timme-Laragy and her postdoctoral researcher Kate Annunziato; Youssef Oulhote (Epidemiology); David Boutt (Geosciences); David Reckhow (Civil and Environmental Engineering); and John Clark and his postdoctoral researcher Jeff Doherty (Veterinary and Animal Sciences). Timme-Laragy highlighted how her lab is studying PFAS toxicity and measuring PFAS compounds, and discussed the data that still needs to be collected and what the university can do in the future to help the state deal with this problem.
“We tried to address a number of timely questions,” says Timme-Laragy. “What are the health risks? How can they be remediated? How should they be regulated?”
The fall workshop expanded on Timme-Laragy’s previous outreach work with State Representative John Velis (Westfield), who toured Timme-Laragy’s lab this summer, as well as her Public Engagement Project (PEP) with Westfield Residents Advocating For Themselves (WRAFT), a community group dedicated to addressing PFAS contamination in Westfield.
“We have a great team of scientists at UMass Amherst that have come together to work on this problem from multiple angles,” says Timme-Laragy. “Not only are we advancing our understanding of these chemicals, but we are educating our elected officials on this issue as well.”