February 14 marks the first anniversary of the Environmental Protection Agency’s release of its plan to address toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS. In the year since the 72-page plan was unveiled, the EPA has not yet set a legal limit for PFAS in drinking water, and has yet to clean up any existing PFAS contamination. But the EPA’s research continues. WHQR’s Vince Winkel reports from their National Research Lab in Durham.
(SFX – water testing device)
Mark Strynar is standing at the robotic front-end of an OrbiTrap. It’s a device in the lab that allows water samples to be processed automatically rather than manually by researchers. It speeds up the process, and it’s the latest piece of technology.
Strynar is a physical scientist at the EPA, and works entirely on water quality.
Since we first spoke in 2017, his focus has remained on PFAS and GenX. But he says that over the course of the three years, some things have surprised him:
“I think some of the surprises for me were how rapidly change could come about through the interaction not only of myself and other regulatory agencies, state and federal, but people within the community that are engaged and with industry that is also working together with us to sort of institute change. It's way better now than it was before as far as what we see in the river and the concentrations have come down. And that was surprising to me how quickly it happened once sort of word got out and we all began working together.”
Strynar says despite the sense of mistrust between consumers, chemical companies, regulators and utilities, he has seen progress:
“You know, with the regulators working together with the industry regularly and having an active community of people that's interested in this - it's an important topic. The water that they drink and the water that we have out there around us is a resource that's extremely valuable. And when all of those people sort of have that common idea that we want to have a cleaner water supply, whether it be shutting off the source or treating that water so that the drinking water downstream is better for people. That's when things happened. And that was a surprise to me. How quickly it happened, I should say.”
This week President Trump released his proposed budget for fiscal year 2021. It calls for a 26 percent cut of the EPA’s funding.
But Strynar’s department has actually grown in recent years:
“I mean the number of people working with me in the lab, you know, we have colleagues, maybe a half dozen to a dozen of us overall. We've grown significantly since you were here last, you know, we have some new gas chromatography, high resolution equipment, we have some new post-docs. We have some new hires. So somewhere between six and 12 or so I would say - on the topic of non-targeted discovery and suspect screening.”
And that team of researchers is focused on the entire country, not simply North Carolina. They are working with states like New Hampshire, West Virginia and Michigan:
“This is a very complex industrial setting. There's all kinds of chemicals being discharged. So we are absolutely more busy than we were, but this is the work that we are pretty good at what we do. And it's great to help out additional states. It's not just here, there's other locations for sure and other states and we have to help each one of those states.”
Vince Winkel, WHQR News.