A team at Binghamton University is researching how to improve the Southern Tier’s water quality using plants and fungi.

The team’s goal is to filter per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from the Southern Tier water supply, which includes Vestal and Binghamton, as well as surrounding cities like Corning and Jamestown.

In an interview with WBNG 12 news, Yuxin Wang, a team member and research assistant professor and lecturer in the environmental studies program at BU, called these chemicals “forever chemicals,” which can cause several kinds of cancer and birth defects. In an email, Wang wrote that the experiment for the project researching fungi as a remedy to the PFAS problem is expected to take about six months.

“Hopefully we will be able to find an efficient and cost-effective solution for PFAS,” Wang wrote.

George Meindl, a member of the research team investigating water quality in the Southern Tier and instructor in the environmental studies program, explained how the chemicals got their nickname and what their team is doing to get them out of local water.

“PFAs are often referred to as ‘forever chemicals,’ as they are extremely slow to degrade and break down,” Meindl said. “Therefore, it is imperative that we devise strategies to safely remove these chemicals from contaminated environments in safe and economically viable ways. Our research aims at determining whether different species of fungi can be used to remove PFAS from contaminated water.”

Mary Campbell, a junior double-majoring in biology and English, collaborated with Jessica Hua, associate professor of biological sciences, Meindl and Wang in designing a research project on the potential of fungi to remove perfluorooctanoic acid — a specific type of PFAS — from the local environment. Campbell wrote in an email that PFAS are a nationwide problem, not just a Binghamton problem.

“Due to the discovery of PFAS in the majority of the [United States] population’s blood serum, we know that this contaminant is widespread and present in areas not detailed in [this] interactive map,” Campbell wrote. “PFAS are extremely resistant to degradation in the environment, meaning that these chemicals will remain in the environment for decades without intervention. Current efforts to break down PFAS are costly and not feasible on a grander scheme. Identifying noninvasive and low-cost alternatives to remediate PFAS contamination is essential, and the primary motivation behind this project.”

Campbell says that fungi have been getting recognition in the scientific community for their ability to uptake and degrade environmental contaminants. She described the negative effects of PFAS on people’s health.

“The majority of the U.S. population has PFAS in their blood serum, which is problematic due to the fact that PFAS are known to cause reproductive problems, immune system impairment, high blood pressure and increased risk of developing kidney or testicular cancer,” Campbell said.

According to Meindl, PFAS can be found in various fast food packaging, nonstick cookware and stain-resistant clothing. Meindl said the main source of PFAS in New York state is firefighting foam. These foams have been linked to groundwater contamination in several communities, including Plattsburgh and Rome.

“These chemicals are toxic and can bioaccumulate in people, so developing effective remediation strategies is really important for human health,” Meindl said.

Camryn Rook, an undeclared freshman, has noticed a difference in the quality of her dorm water and the quality of her water at home.

“Since I’ve come to campus, I’ve noticed a change in my hair,” Rook said. “It wasn’t until after I went home for a weekend and used my own shower when I came to realize it must have been the dorm water that was changing my hair completely. Also, my roommate and I bought a Brita [pitcher] to filter out the tap water to drink. We used it wrong the first time we filled it up, and didn’t realize until after we adjusted it that there was a dramatic change in how the water tasted. These factors, along with the water advisory the campus received a few weeks ago, [have] made me question whether the water we are using to drink and bathe in is safe for students.”