The University of Florida plans to announce early results on Thursday from soil and water sampling along the Indian River Lagoon that was looking for a group of chemical compounds linked to cancer and other illnesses.
The project update, which will happen online from 6 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 17, is part of a three-year pilot study of the so-called PFAS compounds in Brevard County, conducted under an almost $800,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The study explores which types of PFAS — short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are circulating in the soil, water and vegetation along the Space Coast.
PFAS is a family of thousands of synthetic fluorinated chemicals, many widely used for their ability to repel oil, water and stains. They most commonly come in the form of spray foams used to suppress high-heat fuel fires at airports and military bases. But toxic chemicals from those foams also can flow underground from industrial fields into surrounding groundwater and drinking wells.
The study was designed to determine which types of the compounds were lurking in seagrass and other aquatic vegetation, and to determine the places where the chemicals might be most highly concentrated.
Thursday’s project update will focus on latest preliminary results for soil sampled in various cities in Brevard, as well as water samples from different areas of the Indian River Lagoon. The free event is open to the public and can be registered for and viewed on Zoom.
Patrick Space Force Base had used firefighting foam containing PFAS for decades, until discontinuing their use a few years ago. They’re the same substances found in recent years in the groundwater in Satellite Beach and Cocoa Beach. The same chemicals worry many who live, work or go to school near Patrick and Kennedy Space Center.
The long-lived compounds magnify up the food chain, especially in top carnivores like alligators, dolphins — and quite possibly humans. The chemicals also come from multiple consumer products and other sources that infiltrate sewage, causing toxic effects everywhere UF researchers look for them.
PFAS also has been found in manatee blood in Brevard, at comparable levels to the alligators.
UF has been sampling more than 15 spots in the Indian River Lagoon for bottom plants, water and sediment. For the past several years, UF monitored PFAS in alligators, fish and most recently, in manatees. Sea cows eat plants low on the food chain, before PFAS can concentrate up the chain, but they eat 10% of their weight daily, a possible explanation as to why some show similar PFAS levels as alligators and other predators.
“Manatees consume large quantities of seagrass and vegetation, so this was the first angle to explore,” John Bowden, assistant professor of chemistry at UF’s department of physiological sciences and the Center for Environmental and Human Toxicology, told FLORIDA TODAY last month.
In humans, PFAS has been linked with increased risk of cancer and thyroid disease; higher cholesterol; lower fertility and infant birth weight, and other reproductive issues. PFAS can even blunt the effectiveness of COVID-19 and other vaccines.
Scientific studies link the compounds to testicular cancer, kidney cancer, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease and pregnancy-induced hypertension. The association with other diseases is less certain.
The chemicals can remain in the body for decades. Thousands of PFAS compounds aren’t even yet measured, so the combined long-term toxic effects also remain unclear. The UF researchers hope to narrow those knowledge gaps and that their landmark study will yield clues as to what’s killing so many manatees, lately, and about the compounds’ long-term effects on human health.
“We are a long way off from knowing all the facets of how PFAS exposure effects our health, let alone a manatee, where virtually nothing has been done,” Bowden said of PFAS research. “We don’t have any of these answers in manatees. The first step for us is to measure them in manatees and figure out how they are getting exposed.”
In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set a non-enforceable lifetime Health Advisory (HA) for two PFAS compounds that have been more widely studied (a combined 70 parts per billion). Several states — not including Florida — have established regulatory limits for PFAS exposure, but federal regulatory actions are anticipated soon. The state of Florida has developed provisional cleanup target levels for groundwater and soil.
In the past few years, NASA has identified some spots at the Kennedy Space Center that exceed federal guidelines for the same PFAS chemicals that people in the Satellite Beach area fear contributed to rare cancer outbreaks over the years.
The cancer concerns reemerged in 2018 when an oncologist and cancer survivor who grew up in Brevard County, Dr. Julie Greenwalt, began questioning whether her illness and other local cancers were the result of exposures to chemical pollution in either drinking water or irrigation wells.
PFAS PROJECT UPDATE REGISTRATION
To register for Thursday’s Zoom meeting in which UF researchers will give PFAS sampling results in Brevard County, visit: