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Research centre to focus on firefighting chemicals in drinking water

December 5, 2017  By Ground Water Canada

Dec. 5, 2017, Cambridge, MA – Environmental experts from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the University of Rhode Island are teaming up to learn more about chemicals that have contaminated water at sites across the United States.

Harvard Chan School’s Philippe Grandjean and Elsie Sunderland, along with colleagues from the University of Rhode Island, are collaborating on a new research centre to focus on perfluorinated chemicals, which have been linked with cancer and other illnesses but are not currently regulated in drinking water, the Harvard School of Public Health said in a news release. Found in many household products and in firefighting foam, these chemicals have contaminated water near industrial facilities and military bases.

The research centre is being funded by a new five-year, $8-million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The aim is to better understand how perfluorinated chemicals get into water supplies and into the food chain, and how they affect people and animals.


Grandjean, adjunct professor of environmental health, has conducted studies suggesting that infants are exposed to perfluorinated chemicals through breast milk, and that the chemicals may adversely affect immune system development and reduce the effectiveness of vaccines.

Sunderland, associate professor of environmental science and engineering in the Department of Environmental Health, wants to know more about how the geochemistry of an area affects how far the chemicals can travel from their source, and how to better discern what those sources are.

Grandjean and Sunderland are working with Rainer Lohmann, an environmental chemist with the URI Graduate School of Oceanography.

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