Arts & Sciences, Engineering, Law

Targeting PFAS: Marquette research aims to make forever chemicals less permanent — and more manageable for communities  

A hallmark of research excellence and interdisciplinary collaboration, the $7.6 million Defense of Water project by Marquette and the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center is making significant headway in tackling PFAS.

PFAS Defense of Water hitting the target
Illustration by Mike Austin

Many of us take for granted the ability of the infrastructure in our communities to deliver clean drinking water to our taps. But today, that’s not so certain, thanks in part to a group of chemicals known as PFAS (short for per- and polyfluorinated substances). They’re nicknamed “forever chemicals” for their propensity to stick around, well, forever.  

Since the 1950s, manufacturers have used PFAS to make carpets more stain resistant, clothing more waterproof, food packaging more nonstick and firefighting foam more effective. Eluding typical remediation and water treatment methods, PFAS chemicals today are everywhere — including the blood streams of almost any person living in an industrialized nation. At high enough levels, they are dangerous and associated with reproductive damage, cancers, low birth weights and more.  

Marquette’s historic $7.6 million water research partnership with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center — known as “In Defense of Water” by researchers — targets PFAS in addition to other water quality challenges and concerns. The multi-phase program, formally titled “Novel Technologies to Mitigate Water Contamination for Resilient Infrastructure,” draws on faculty expertise from engineering, biological sciences, economics, law, education and more.  

Since the program launched in 2021 with support from an initial $3.8 million grant, Marquette researchers and their partners have been developing new approaches for treating PFAS, electro-chemically and even biologically. Now, through a second grant and a new partnership with the Army Corp’s Engineering Research Development Center, existing teams will continue to pioneer water treatments while new teams investigate questions that extend beyond engineering, such as how well-prepared communities are to handle the complex public health challenges posed by PFAS. Six faculty members from four Marquette colleges and the Law School are now involved in investigating PFAS alone, with additional colleagues tackling challenges such as antimicrobial resistant pathogens, sewage decontamination that yields valuable resources, the impact of water chemistry on corrosion of pipes made of lead and other metals, water security on military installations and more. 

The Fight Against PFAS 

Dr. Chris Marshall, assistant professor of biological sciences, has been leading the charge with co-investigators Dr. Brooke Mayer and Dr. Patrick McNamara from the College of Engineering on the technical side of PFAS removal since phase one. His team’s innovative two-step solution involves electrochemical removal of PFAS followed by bioelectrochemical degradation and destruction. Translation: Zap the PFAS, then use chemical-munching bacteria to clean up the mess.  

Before tackling PFAS, Marshall pioneered a similar method to degrade halogenated compounds such as PCBs, and evidence suggests the same or related bacteria strains work on PFAS too. Marshall’s team has already seen success: Their reactor designs can remove most of the PFAS present in water samples. In the new phase of the project, Marshall and his team will continue to improve upon these accomplishments while working to better understand the mechanisms of PFAS destruction. 

PFAS in the Real World 

PFAS contamination isn’t just an engineering problem; it’s a public health and policy puzzle, too. Just ask residents of the Wisconsin cities of Marinette and Peshtigo, where the testing and manufacturing of firefighting foam has pushed PFAS levels in many private wells above the 20 parts per trillion limit recommended as safe by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. In the northern Wisconsin town of Stella, over 40% of private wells tested since July 2022 have had concentrations of PFAS exceed these recommended levels, with some soaring as high as 35,000 ppt. Meanwhile, the US EPA has lowered what it considers acceptable PFAS levels in drinking water to 4 ppt. 

What will happen to these Wisconsin communities that are so highly contaminated? What factors will determine their vulnerability and resilience in the face of these threats? 

That’s the area of study of a project launched in the second phase of In Defense of Water and co-directed by Dr. Jill Birren, associate professor of educational policy and leadership, and Dr. Amber Wichowsky, chair and professor of political science.  

“That’s the kind of research I love to do. I have really enjoyed getting to know people, talking to people about how they’re working ‘in defense of water.’ Really, it’s in defense of their environments and their homes.”

Dr. Jill Birren, associate professor of educational policy and leadership

The researchers believe the future health of these communities rests in part on the effectiveness of the community-level response, which itself depends on the underlying dynamics of the place. For instance, how interconnected are community members — do they know their neighbors? Are they tapped into their local news? Are there anchor points, like community organizations, where people might connect and communicate about issues such as water contamination? 

“We’re hoping that having these different mechanisms by which people might care for one another and be connected to one another will allow us to think about how information is able to proceed through communities,” Birren says. Starting this summer, her team is planning to attend public meetings and meeting with community leaders and others at the forefront of engagement around the PFAS issue, she says. “That’s the kind of research I love to do. I have really enjoyed getting to know people, talking to people about how they’re working ‘in defense of water.’ Really, it’s in defense of their environments and their homes.” 

Zooming out to the state level, the team partnered with the Marquette Law School Poll to survey Wisconsin residents in 2022 and 2023. They learned that an increasing majority of Wisconsin residents are concerned about PFAS contamination, including a majority of both Republicans and Democrats.  

“Addressing contamination and protecting drinking water will require bipartisan cooperation,” Wichowsky and colleagues wrote in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel op-ed last year. “Wisconsin residents appear ready for such public deliberation and action.” 

Helping the research team integrate these various strands, economist Dr. Andrew Meyer from the College of Business has been creating econometric models for understanding the relationships between PFAS risk, community response and downstream impacts, while also using GIS to create maps of PFAS contamination levels across Wisconsin. Understanding the tradeoffs between costs of environmental protection and costs of environmental damage are key for communicating risk to vulnerable communities.  

“There are extreme viewpoints on both sides. Some people believe government intervention is never needed and hurts economies — to them I would explain that there will always be costs associated with pollution,” Meyer explains. “Others believe all pollution is morally wrong and that the government should do away with all polluting industries — to them, I would explain that we live in a world of limited resources, and we must make tradeoffs to deliver the greatest good to society given those resources.”