New UMaine PFAS+ Initiative strives to address forever chemicals crisis

The University of Maine has established the PFAS+ Initiative, a university-wide multi-disciplinary effort to address the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) pollution crisis and its cascading environmental and societal impacts.

The new initiative is led by a steering committee made up of four members including Onur Apul, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, Jason Bolton, an associate Extension professor and food safety specialist, Sharmila Mukhopadhyay, a professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Frontier Institute for Research in Sensor Technologies (FIRST) and Ali Abedi, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and associate vice president for research.

Commonly called “forever chemicals” because they tend to break down very slowly or not at all, this group of chemicals is widely used in industrial and consumer products such as nonstick pans, takeout food containers and in firefighting foam. Over time PFAS can build up in the environment, impacting soil and water.

Current scientific research suggests that exposure to high levels of certain PFAS may lead to adverse health outcomes, including immune system disorders, thyroid hormone disruption and cancer. 

The purpose of the initiative is to foster strategic planning of PFAS mitigation efforts, coordinate high-quality PFAS analysis and conduct cutting-edge research driven by the needs of government agencies, UMaine researchers and impacted stakeholders. 

“The PFAS+ Initiative is a unique, collective effort of UMaine researchers to make Maine a nationwide leader in PFAS research. The new initiative will bring academics, government, industry, and community partners together to solve the complex environmental and public health problems caused by PFAS pollution. This is a solid first step in resolving Maine’s contemporary and stigmatic PFAS pollution in a transformative, safe, and sustainable way,” Onur says.

Long-term goals of the initiative are to unravel PFAS pollution pathways and develop safe and sustainable mitigation approaches involving new materials, devices, technologies, and processes for food, water and environmental safety. The initiative also aspires to create a transparent PFAS communication framework to minimize public health hazards.

The initiative’s plus sign indicates the breadth of the impact that PFAS has on society, other emerging environmental pollutants and the transformative and novel approach that UMaine realizes.

Forever chemicals represent a grand challenge with local and global impact. UMaine Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School Kody Varahramyan says, “The UMaine PFAS+ Initiative is part of a series of university-wide initiatives that have been strategically created as part of the University of Maine System’s Research and Development Plan, and are supporting the realization of making Maine the best state in the nation in which to live, work and learn by 2030. This involves finding solutions to grand challenges that affect people both locally and around the world.”

The new initiative builds on efforts by the Cooperative Extension and Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions PFAS Research Initiative to provide communities with important information regarding PFAS. Additionally, there are many ongoing collaborative projects across UMaine engaged in the assessment, impact and mitigation of these chemicals.

Onur remains hopeful that research will result in progress. “At the pace and the resources that are spent for PFAS mitigation, I see a light at the end of the tunnel. Meaning that we may be understanding the pathways better. We may find better mitigation technologies. We may be slowly phasing out the fear of PFAS with the knowledge‑building,” he says.

To read more about the initiative, visit the UMaine PFAS+ website.