Otterbein biology professor leads efforts on PFAS

Posted Aug 16, 2021

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By Payton Kaufman ’24 
Public Relations major 

Many American homes likely contain items with a potentially harmful group of polyfluoroalkyl-substance chemicals, commonly known as PFAS. 

PFAS are man-made chemicals used in a variety of processes and substances around the world since the 1940s. They don’t breakdown in the environment or in human bodies quickly. Studies have shown workers in the manufacturing of PFAS had serious health issues as a result of direct exposure. 

Otterbein Professor of Biology and Earth Science and Environmental Science Program Director Kevin Svitana leads efforts on PFAS through his association with the National Groundwater Association (NGWA). Otterbein hosted NGWA’s PFAS conference in 2019 and is currently working with the university for a June 2022 PFAS conference at The Point. The 2019 conference had over 130 attendees from more than 30 different states. 

“It is very obvious that people who worked in manufacturing, directly exposed to high concentrations of PFAS, had medical problems, basically cancers,” Svitana said. “The big question is: are consumers at risk?” 

PFAS are used to create non-stick and waterproof items. Not only are PFAS found in Teflon pans, waterproof makeup, rain gear, and granola-bar wrappers, they are also now found in our water supply because of their environmental persistence. The number of people in contact with them is very high.  

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Professor Kevin Svitana

“If we were all tested right now, the likelihood that we are going to have PFAS in our blood is 95 percent,” Svitana said. “Parchment, Michigan, was the first major town to have PFAS groundwater contamination. An old paper mill resulted in the shut-off of Parchment’s water supply,” Svitana said. 

Though the majority of Americans likely have PFAS in their body, the group of chemicals may not be widely known or discussed. Svitana connects this with the confusion caused by the different parties involved in PFAS. 

“There are the companies who produce the materials and products that contain PFAS, and then there’s the public who’s been exposed,” Svitana said. “You also have parties in between that make it sound like it is no big deal and other parties that say it is a big deal.” 

American manufacturers voluntarily quit production of PFAS after studies showed the medical problems it posed to their workers. The next step towards public protection from PFAS is regulation. Svitana predicts that PFAS will most likely be regulated federally within the next five years, and certain states, such as Michigan and New Hampshire, have already adopted drinking water regulations restricting PFAS concentrations. 

Svitana attributes the lack of PFAS regulation nationwide thus far to our lack of understanding. He hopes the outcome of his work with NGWA is building public awareness. 

“Similar to climate change, PFAS issues are very complicated, and we do not know everything to be definitive yet,” Svitana said. “I am trying to avoid the fear mongering that happens a lot in the hazardous-waste world. People are afraid of what they do not understand.” 

Payton Kaufman is a sophomore public-relations major from Westerville, Ohio. She is also a starter on Otterbein’s women’s OAC-champion soccer team. Payton recently interviewed Columbia Law Professor Jane Ginsburg, daughter of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which Payton described as the “coolest thing I’ve ever done.”