Research News

Taking the ‘forever’ out of toxic ‘forever chemicals’

Diana Aga in the lab.

UB chemistry professor Diana Aga is leading research that focuses on breaking down PFAS, a family of highly persistent pollutants. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published February 7, 2022

“These chemicals are a part of so many things in our daily life, and they can accumulate in the body when people are exposed to them over time. ”
Diana Aga, Henry M. Woodburn Professor of Chemistry and director
UB RENEW Institute

They’re used in a wide range of consumer and industrial products, and they degrade so slowly that they’ve earned the nickname “forever chemicals.”

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have contaminated air, soil and water around the world, and their ubiquity and persistence make them a nightmare to clean up.

But what if we could take the “forever” out of these forever chemicals, and invent new ways to break some of them down?

That’s one goal of a series of studies led by UB researcher Diana Aga, director of the UB RENEW Institute and Henry M. Woodburn Professor of Chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences. UB faculty, students and postdoctoral researchers are engaged in these projects, as well as partners from other institutions.

“PFAS are everywhere. I don’t know how many people are aware that when you microwave bagged popcorn, there can be PFAS in the packaging,” Aga says. “These chemicals are a part of so many things in our daily life, and they can accumulate in the body when people are exposed to them over time. Their bioaccumulation in human blood and wildlife is why we are so concerned about their widespread occurrence in the environment.

“PFAS have been on the radar of the scientific community for many years, and the first seminar speaker I invited to UB in 2002 talked about how PFAS from firefighting foams could get transported into water and air, and eventually into people,” she says. “But about five years ago, I noticed that PFAS were on the news a lot because of growing evidence that they are toxic and pervasive, and I started thinking that maybe I should really look into this. There are still a lot of unknowns that we need to tackle, and I felt that there was still space for people like myself to contribute, as analytical and environmental chemists.”

Three projects focused on PFAS

PFAS have been used in products such as firefighting foams, fabrics, non-stick cooking surfaces, food packaging and more. Past studies indicate that exposure to high levels of some of these chemicals may lead to a variety of health problems. Health effects are difficult to parse out, in part because there are over 5,000 different PFAS.

“The diversity that exists in PFAS is quite fascinating. From a chemical standpoint, they can look similar to some of the molecules that we already have in our bodies. Yet, they behave much differently,” says G. Ekin Atilla-Gokcumen, associate professor of chemistry, who is partnering with Aga on a newly funded project that focuses on clearing PFAS from wastewater. “They are, in a way, sneaky molecules that tend to stay around and accumulate in our bodies in unpredictable ways when we are exposed to them. This is one of the grand challenges in studying negative health effects of these compounds. We are excited to be a part of this team,” Atilla-Gokcumen says.

That collaboration is one of three federally supported studies that the Aga lab is working on to advance technologies for detecting and degrading PFAS. The team will also seek to understand the byproducts that these processes create: When PFAS do break down, what molecules are left behind, and are these scraps still toxic?

UB chemistry PhD candidate Rebecca Dickman uses a pipette to prepare wastewater extracts containing PFAS prior to analysis.

UB chemistry PhD candidate Rebecca Dickman uses a technique called serial dilution to prepare wastewater extracts containing PFAS prior to analysis. Dickman's research, part of a National Science Foundation-funded project, focuses on developing better methods for measuring PFAS in environmental samples. Photo: Douglas Levere

The studies:

  • Using bacteria and bioreactors to clean wastewater: This study brings together teams from UB and the University of Southern California (USC) to develop anaerobic membrane bioreactors that use bacteria and membranes to remove certain PFAS from wastewater. Scientists will identify microbes that help to break down PFAS, and deploy cutting-edge analytical methods to understand how PFAS are being degraded and whether the chopped-up remains may still be toxic. The $500,000 project was funded in 2021 by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF).

    Partners: Aga, principal investigator; and Atilla-Gokcumen, co-principal investigator; and Adam Smith, USC associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, co-principal investigator. 
  • Combining nanotech with microbes to destroy PFAS: UB and University of Pittsburgh researchers are coupling materials science with microbiology in the quest to clean wastewater. This study aims to design nanomaterials that can snip up certain PFAS, and to cultivate bacteria that can consume the leftover scraps. The team will use advanced mass spectrometry and computer modeling to understand what happens at each step of the process. Ideally, Aga says, “We will know what the byproducts are, and how the PFAS are interacting with the nanomaterials and microbes. Our goal is to be able to predict exactly where the molecule will degrade, and how it will degrade.” The $1.5 million project was funded in 2021 by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ Superfund Research Program.

    Partners: Aga, principal investigator; Nirupam Aich, UB assistant professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering, co-investigator; Ian Bradley, UB assistant professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering and faculty member in the UB RENEW Institute, co-investigator; and Carla Ng, University of Pittsburgh assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, co-investigator.

  • Developing better methods of detecting PFAS: It’s hard to study the health and environmental impacts of chemicals if you don’t have the tools to detect those chemicals. This is a huge problem when it comes to PFAS, given that there are thousands of different types of these compounds. With this in mind, UB and St. Bonaventure University scientists are teaming up to assess and develop techniques for identifying, quantifying and characterizing a number of PFAS, and for researching how PFAS move and persist in the environment. This $552,000 project was funded in 2019 by the NSF.

    Partners: Aga, principal investigator, and Scott Simpson, St. Bonaventure associate professor of chemistry, co-principal investigator.

In addition to the three federally funded projects, Aga’s team is also interested in the impact of PFAS on wildlife, with one study examining whether PFAS are present in the abandoned eggs of birds in the Great Lakes region.

“I just feel like the more information we collect, the more educated people will become, and the faster the government will have regulations,” Aga says. “Hopefully, companies will also engage in better stewardship and more responsible practices.”