URI funded to research contaminated water

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences recently presented the University of Rhode Island with an $8 million federal grant as a part of a national research initiative aimed at exploring perfluorinated compounds that contaminate drinking water and the impact the pollutants have on human consumption.

Much of the effort that went into securing the five-year federal grant can be attributed to URI Professor of Oceanography, Rainer Lohmann. Lohmann is a tenured professor at the Graduate School of Oceanography and his areas of expertise consist of chemistry, climate change, estuarine circulation and mixing, pollution and man-made chemical contaminants—a focus of his since joining the GSO in 2004.

“After I was tenured at URI, I realized that I wanted to at least try to lead a major research center application and—ideally—direct its research,” explained Lohmann.

Lohmann has since acted on this desire and is not only credited with the idea, but also responsible for organizing a cohesive team of scholars to assist with the Superfund Research Center. “It took us over two years to get the right team together and converge on a coherent set of ideas for science projects and related core topics for this center,” explained Lohmann. “Suffice to say that over the two years, there were periods where we didn’t seem to move forward.”

Described by Lohmann as both proactive and reactive, the Research Center supports actions to be taken at contaminated sites as well as researching the perfluorinated compounds that cause the contamination. “In that sense,” Lohmann said, “the contamination has already occurred but at the same time we hope to help communities be more proactive about their potential exposure and effects.”

URI will share the federal grant with other institutions—including Brown, Harvard and Silent Spring Institute—to collectively work towards researching the man-made pollutants and examining the levels of contamination in the water. The sole focus being perfluorinated compounds, also known as poly/perflouralkl substances or PFASs, that were used as water/stain repellency/protection of fabric (outdoor clothing, treated paper products, food containers) production of Teflon and aqueous film forming foams.

“Brown University focuses on Rhode Island contaminated sites, while UR’s Superfund Research Center works on perfluorinated compounds across the US—though our primary focus is on PFAS-contaminated sites on Cape Cod,” said Lohmann.

“The problem of contamination by these fluorinated man-made chemicals affects communities across the US,” Lohmann emphasized. “What we hope to achieve is to further raise the importance of the dangers posed by these contaminants, work with state and federal agencies dealing with these compounds and support affected communities.”

Lohmann lead his group for around two years before finally submitting the grant proposal in April of 2016. Lohmann explained, “funding was delayed by almost half a year because of budget delays in Washington D.C.”

With no other direct impacts interfering with the progress of the Superfund Research Center, Lohmann looks forward to working with a team as discussed and outlined in the grant proposal. “There are several exciting facets of working in an interdisciplinary team,”said Lohmann, “be that the training of younger scientists across our various disciplines, working with affected communities and sharing our information with state and federal partners, and performing research with our diverse set of experts.”

Lohmann hopes that the research done will “help protect human and environmental health.”