August 27, 2019
Associate Professor of Environmental Health Sciences Alicia Timme-Laragy, a developmental toxicologist with expertise in how early life exposures to pollutants affect health, recently hosted a visit by State Representative John Velis (Westfield) to discuss her ongoing research to identify and understand the health risks of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) found in contaminated drinking water.
PFAS compounds, used worldwide in common household and industry goods, including nonstick cookware, water- and stain-resistant materials and food packaging, have been called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment. They are also used in aqueous film forming foams (AFFF) used at military training sites, including the nearby Westfield air national guard base. PFAS contamination has been found in the drinking water and aquifer in Westfield following decades of use there.
Representative Velis’ visit included tours of Timme-Laragy’s toxicology lab and zebrafish facility, and the Massachusetts Pesticide Analysis Laboratory run by Professor of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry John Clark (Veterinary and Animal Sciences), which is working on identifying the chemicals in the AFFF mixture. Following the lab tours, Timme-Laragy hosted a discussion about PFAS, Westfield contamination, and current UMass Amherst research with Representative Velis, Clark, and other colleagues including Professor and Department Chair of Environmental Health Sciences Tim Ford, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology Youssef Oulhote, and postdoctoral fellows Jeff Doherty (Veterinary and Animal Sciences) and Kate Annunziato (Environmental Health Sciences).
“Representative Velis is very concerned about the contaminated water in Westfield and is educating himself on these chemicals,” says Timme-Laragy. “He asked lots of important questions: What are the health risks? How can they be remediated? How should they be regulated? He has created a PFAS caucus in the state legislature, as many other districts are also dealing with similar contamination issues.”
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 and the community of Westfield deal with this problem.
The meeting was arranged by Westfield Residents Advocating For Themselves (WRAFT), a community group dedicated to addressing PFAS contamination in Westfield, MA, with whom Timme-Laragy has been working as part of her Public Engagement Project (PEP). As a culmination of this project, Timme-Laragy also visited the State House on Beacon Hill to meet with Representative Kate Hogan and legislative aides for Senator Julian Cyr and Representative Smitty Pignatelli.
“I provided education about PFAS, my lab's research findings, and the great team of scientists at UMass Amherst that have come together to work on this problem from multiple angles,” explains Timme-Laragy. “Not only are we advancing our understanding of these chemicals, but we are educating our students on this issue as well.”