Building a more sustainable and resilient future for all
The Sustainability Institute integrates, supports and leads sustainability across the university to:
• Promote sustainability and resilience teaching and learning • Catalyze interdisciplinary research that drives discovery and innovation • Engage public and private sector partners to develop and apply sustainable solutions • Integrate sustainability scholarship with campus activities to engage students in research and experiential learning • Provide a competitive advantage in attracting exceptional new talent, students, partnerships and resources
The Sustainability Institute at Ohio State
Today, our planet’s life support systems are rapidly transforming. The ecosystems that sustain us are fluctuating, due to continued population growth, resource consumption, environmental degradation and climate change.
As a society, we stand at a crossroads between a sustainable and resilient future and one that leaves future generations to deal with unprecedented environmental change, resource scarcities and growing social inequities.
At Ohio State, we are poised to make lasting contributions to solving many of the world’s most complex and pervasive challenges. Our interdisciplinary research capacity, culture of problem solving and strategic partnerships with private industry, public agencies and non-governmental organizations offer countless opportunities to create transformational change in Ohio and around the world.
The time to act is now.
About The Sustainability Institute
Ohio State is a comprehensive land-grant research university with hundreds of faculty in sustainability, thousands of passionate students, an enduring land-grant mission, and a strong commitment to sustainability in its campus operations, dedicated to leveraging its knowledge to enable more sustainable and resilient communities, including our state, nation and the global community.
Over 600 faculty and research scientists are engaged in sustainability research; we teach more than 1,000 courses that support sustainability learning; and we are engaged in Ohio communities and around the world to improve social, economic and environmental conditions.
The Sustainability Institute at Ohio State
3018 Smith Laboratory
174 W. 18th Avenue
Columbus, OH 43210
On the web: si.osu.edu
On social media: @OhioStSustain
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Confronting Ohio Water Quality Challenges
October 14, 2019
By: Meredith Oglesby
You glance out the window and see it raining, so you grab your raincoat before heading off to work. A spill on your carpet and you think — no worries, I have a stain-resistant carpet.
But, should we worry?
The compounds that allow items to be waterproof and stain resistant have been tagged “forever chemicals” — toxic chemicals known as PFASs that may be associated with certain illnesses and are now found in nearly everyone’s bodies. Forever chemicals contain multiple fluorine-carbon bonds, an especially strong chemical bond, and they do not go away.
PFASs, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of fabricated chemicals that are highly fluorinated, making them extremely resistant to breakdown and thus useful in the manufacture of waterproof, nonstick or stain-resistant materials.
Linda Weavers, professor of civil, environmental and geodetic engineering at The Ohio State University, has spent the past 10 years researching the impacts that these and other compounds have on the environment and human health and looking to find treatment technologies for them.
Originally, 3M, in conjunction with the U.S. Navy, developed the PFAS compound, says Weavers, who is a member of the Sustainability Institute Faculty Advisory Board and co-lead for the institute’s healthy land, water and air systems research program area.
“What was really cool about it was that it repels water and oils, so it was really great for putting out oil fires on board navy ships,” Weavers says. “After they developed it, they found all these other really great uses for it because it is so unreactive.”
While worry about the environmental and health consequences of these compounds has been around for the past two decades, the concerns are growing in magnitude. Weavers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were working together to look at these compounds in surface waters near the Chemours Co. plant outside of Parkersburg, W.Va. (Chemours is a spinoff of DuPont and the world’s largest maker of fluorochemicals.)
Their research focused on how PFAS compounds were getting into surface waters throughout southeastern Ohio, as well as understanding the extent of these compounds in regions downwind of the Chemours Plant.
“Chemours was using these forever chemicals in their manufacturing, so emissions may be from a variety of places within a manufacturing facility,” Weavers says. “For example, they could be leaking from storage tanks containing the chemicals or being emitted during processing to make products.”
As important as it is to understand how these chemicals get to the waters in which they are found, there are other challenges that arise from PFAS compounds, including:
- How are we exposed to these compounds so that they end up in our bodies?
- How toxic are they?
- How do we protect ourselves from exposure to them?
While up to 6,000 forever chemicals are thought to exist, relatively few have been studied. Current research is just the tip of the iceberg for consequences of these compounds.
Another area of study paralleling this research concerns the health outcomes related to PFAS compounds. An epidemiological study with approximately 70,000 people linked certain health outcomes to a few compounds in the PFAS class of compounds.
An estimated 110 million Americans have drinking water impacted by this compound, and nearly 98% of us will have this compound in our blood, Weavers says.
Exposure to these chemicals comes from a range of sources.
“All of your great rain coats that aren’t these big heavy rubber things are treated with forever chemicals,” Weavers says. “Stain resistant carpets: You just spray a cleaner on it, and you can get the stain right out because of these compounds.”
In terms of what industries can do to improve water quality, Weavers shared the need for stronger funding for the EPA.
“In the last number of years, with reduced funding for the U.S. EPA, we see each state grappling with and figuring out what to do about these compounds,” Weavers says. “So the states are coming up with a variety of different solutions. From an industry perspective, this becomes much harder to manage, because the regulations may be different in every state.”
While the industry faces many challenges, there are ways individuals can work to improve water quality.
“Be thoughtful about the chemicals you use in your home, and about the stain-resistant things you bring into your home, if you want to minimize your exposure,” Weavers says.
From Hollywood films to books, media outlets have been bringing to light stories of communities impacted by these chemicals.
In 2018, “A Devil We Know” was released to tell the story of how a West Virginia community was impacted by C8, also known as PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, a PFAS chemical), used to make Teflon, produced by DuPont.
Ohio State will screen “A Devil We Know” at 7 p.m. March 3 in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Chemistry Building as part of the Sustainability Institute’s annual Environmental Film Series, co-hosted with the School of Environmental and Natural Resources.
Weavers and Cincinnati attorney Rob Bilott will co-lead the after-film discussion. Bilott’s new book is “Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle Against DuPont,” an eye-opening true story of the lawyer who spent two decades building a case against DuPont for its use of the unregulated PFOA.
On Nov. 22, the film “Dark Waters,” starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway, will be released to share the story of how southeastern Ohio was impacted by the DuPont chemical plant.
“I think good things can be done when people come together and work together,” Weavers says.
Weavers noted that this is not the only water quality issue facing Ohio.
From algal blooms to acid mine drainage, “we’ve got it all,” Weavers says.
As co-director of the Ohio Water Resource Center, Weavers pays special attention to the water quality issues in Ohio and is closely monitoring the H2Ohio Initiative, a water quality protection effort announced by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine in March.
“We work hard to develop relationships with stakeholders in the state to understand what their needs are and to help meet those needs in terms of outreach and engagement,” Weavers says. “We make sure we are guiding our researchers toward things that will be valuable to the state.”
Meredith Oglesby is a student communications assistant at the Sustainability Institute at Ohio State.