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U of Guelph Researcher Wins International Water Award for Groundwater Contamination R&D

Drawing attention to Earth’s crisis of groundwater contamination and exploitation is the goal of a University of Guelph engineering professor whose prestigious international water award was recently announced.

Prof. John Cherry, an adjunct professor in U of G’s School of Engineering, was recently named the 2020 winner of the Stockholm Water Prize on UN World Water Day.

He’s the first hydrogeologist and the second Canadian to win the international award, which has gone to academics and organizations worldwide, including the International Water Management Institute in Sri Lanka and Great Britain’s Water Aid.

Awarded annually since 1991, the prize honours individuals and organizations whose work helps to conserve and protect water resources. Cherry will receive the award from Princess Victoria of Sweden in late August and will address the opening session of this year’s World Water Week conference to be held by the Stockholm International Water Institute.

“John has made incredible contributions to groundwater research that have had profoundly important global impacts, aligning perfectly with our institutional commitment to improve life,” said Malcolm Campbell, vice-president (research), at U of G.

“John’s achievements are spectacular and provide inspiration for the University of Guelph research enterprise, and we offer him our heartfelt congratulations and praise. John is most deserving of this award.”

Cherry plans to use the award to highlight what he calls “the global groundwater crisis.”

Worldwide, groundwater quality is imperiled by pollutants, especially contaminants from agriculture such as fertilizer and other sources such as road salting, septic systems and industrial chemicals, said Cherry.

A 2016 United Nations report projected that rising global temperatures, expanding urbanization and continued population growth will result in a 40-per-cent global water deficit by 2030.

Nearly all of Earth’s liquid freshwater is groundwater, including reserves that provide drinking water for about one in three Canadians. Almost half of the world population depends on groundwater for domestic use and many rely on it for irrigation.

“Groundwater as an issue gets ignored in Canada and in many other countries,” said Cherry, who studied groundwater contamination for decades as a professor at the University of Waterloo. “It’s going on underground, so you can’t see it, but it’s the backbone of the freshwater cycle.”

This summer, he will launch the Groundwater Project, a series of e-books and other educational resources to be made available free online in several languages for users from water experts to university students to schoolchildren. Cherry has solicited chapters from hundreds of water experts worldwide, including U of G engineering professors Beth Parker and Ed McBean, and Prof. Aaron Berg, Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics.

The project will be based at U of G, where Cherry is principal investigator with the G360 Institute for Groundwater Research. Led by Parker, the institute studies groundwater quality and interactions between groundwater and surface water. It specializes in developing and applying sophisticated groundwater monitoring technologies, including systems monitoring the bedrock aquifer in Guelph and Wellington County.

“What’s most notable to me about Professor Cherry is his extraordinary capacity for collaboration, likely due to his broad interest in people and their ideas and his passion for seeking solutions to real-world problems,” said Parker. Referring to her colleague’s longtime teamwork in hydrogeology research and education, she said, “He is still pursuing advances with groundwater science and practice with his vision and with the largest-ever team working on the groundwater e-book project, which will undoubtedly have global impact.”

The project grew out of a definitive textbook called Groundwater, co-authored by Cherry in 1979.

Called a “pioneer of contaminant hydrogeology,” he joined the University of Manitoba in 1967 as Canada’s first groundwater professor.

Moving to the University of Waterloo in 1971, he led a groundwater research group for decades. His research criteria for choosing safe disposal sites for radioactive wastes have been adopted in worldwide regulations. The nomination for this award was submitted by the University of Waterloo’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and the Water Institute.

Cherry has been named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a Foreign Fellow of the American Academy of Engineering. In 2016, he received the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize from Singapore for outstanding contributions to global water research.

He traces his longtime interest in water resources to the work of his parents, Lawrence Cherry and Evelyn Spice Cherry, who experienced drought while growing up in Canada’s West. Both worked for the National Film Board and later ran a Saskatchewan documentary film company specializing in social and environmental issues.

Interim Recommendations for Addressing Groundwater Contamination with PFOA and PFOS

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) recently released interim recommendations for screening levels and preliminary remediation goals to inform the development of final cleanup levels for PFOA and/or PFOS groundwater contamination at sites being evaluated and addressed under federal cleanup programs, including CERCLA and RCRA.

The recommendations are consistent with existing EPA guidance and standard practices, in addition to applicable statutes and regulations. The recommendations may be useful for state, tribal, or other regulatory authorities.

In a news release, U.S. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler stated, “The interim recommendations will provide clear and consistent guidance for federal cleanup programs and will help protect drinking water resources in communities across the country. This is a critical tool for our state, tribal, and local partners to use to protect public health and address these chemicals.”

U.S. Federal agencies and states have asked the U.S. EPA to provide guidance on this issue. After reviewing public comments on the agency’s April 2019 draft guidance, the U.S. EPA is finalizing these interim recommendations based on the available data and scientific information on PFAS toxicity. The U.S. EPA acknowledges that the scientific information on these compounds continues to evolve. As part of the PFAS Action Plan, the U.S. EPA is continuing to develop and assess toxicity information, test methods, laboratory methods, analytical methods, exposure models, and treatment methods, among other research efforts to improve the knowledge about this class of chemicals. As new information becomes available on other PFAS chemicals, the agency will consider additional recommendations as the agency advances its knowledge of these other substances.

Urgent Canadian Action is needed on PFAS — the Forever Chemicals

Written by Bev Thorpe and Fe de Leon for the Canadian Environmental Law Association

The class of chemicals called PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) are often referred to as ‘the forever chemicals’ because they are highly persistent in the environment and will take hundreds if not thousands of years to disappear from the soil and groundwater where they accumulate.  The Netflix film, The Devil We Know, and the newly released film, Dark Waters, have brought these chemicals to popular awareness.  As we now know, two substances in this chemical class – PFOS and PFOS – are the focus of multi-million dollar lawsuits due to the cover up of data demonstrating health impacts such as increased cholesterol, kidney cancer, testicular cancer, low birth rates, thyroid disease, and weakened immunity.  Over 99% of all Canadians tested by Health Canada’s biomonitoring surveys, have PFOA and PFOS in their blood and other organs including communities in the far north.  Producers of PFOS and PFOA voluntarily stopped production in 2002 resulting in a slight decrease of these two PFAS in sampled populations, but other PFAS are now turning up in Canadians. Yet the Canadian regulatory response to this crisis is lacking urgency and transparent communication with impacted communities.

PFAS is widely present because  for over sixty years these chemicals have been used as stain, oil and water repellant chemicals in  clothing, carpets, grease-proof paper, ski wax, cookware and cosmetics and also widely used in firefighting foam and other industrial applications.  Their widespread use raises the question why it took so long to highlight the risk to human health and wildlife and why regulatory response has been so slow.  This is partly because scientists lacked the analytical capability to measure these chemicals in the environment until recently.  At the same time, PFAS, as with thousands of chemicals were historically allowed on the market with no toxicological screening requirements.  Even today, most new  PFAS, which industry is now switching to as replacements for PFOA and PFOS, lack full toxicological data yet they remain unregulated and on the market.

In Canada most uses for PFOS were prohibited in 2016 aside from exemptions for specific uses.  In 2012, the federal government concluded that PFOA was an ecological concern. But Health Canada maintains that PFOS and PFOA are not a concern for human health at current levels of exposure.  Most recently in June 2019 Transport Canada allowed airports to use PFAS-free firefighting foam, which shows a more precautionary approach as it targets the whole class of PFAS, but this is only a start.  There are over 5,000 PFAS in use and they are just as persistent in the environment as PFOS and PFOA, with many known to be highly mobile in rivers, lakes and groundwater.  None of these are restricted in Canada.

For Canadian adults, our main exposure to PFAS is via household dust, ingestion of food and air – in fact studies of air in Vancouver homes found levels of PFAS were twenty times higher than air outside the homes due to PFAS inside the homes.  Children, infants and toddlers are most at risk from PFAS exposure due to hand-to-mouth contact with PFAS treated products.  In addition, Canadian research has demonstrated PFAS in the leachate and air of landfill sites, due to the amount of PFAS in the clothing, carpets and consumer goods that have been discarded into landfills over the years and which are now leaching these chemicals into the environment.  PFAS are found in the air and effluent from wastewater treatment sites as well as in the sewage sludge which can be spread on land.

If this situation seems worrying, it is.  We lack full transparency of where contamination sites are in Canada and full accountability for who is responsible for the cleanup. Remediation is expensive and technically challenging which may partly explain such inaction.  The region downstream of Hamilton airport has still not been cleaned up eight years after high levels of PFAS contamination were discovered.  The extent of contamination in Canada is difficult to know, unlike the disclosure afforded to US citizens by many US state regulatory bodies.  The use of PFAS in firefighting foam at military bases, airports and refineries is increasingly acknowledged to be a common source of  water contamination but public information is absent on site specific monitoring data or even if groundwater wells are being monitored.  In December 2018 Health Canada released Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines for PFOS and PFOA which are substantially weaker than US based guidelines and to date British Columbia is the only Canadian province to establish provincial drinking water regulations.

We urgently need to see federal and provincial governments take action to phase out the entire class of PFAS in consumer and industrial use; strengthen Canadian drinking water standards to be more protective of children’s health and radically increase public right to know about the presence of PFAS in consumer products, local drinking water, and discharges into our communities. Tackling these forever chemicals requires an informed and coordinated public response which has sadly been lacking to date.

This article has been republished with the permission of the authors.  It was first published on the CELA website.


About the Authors

Bev Thorpe is an environmental consultant and principle author of CELA’s reports on PFAS.  Bev works with advocacy networks, companies and governments to advance an economy without the harm of hazardous chemicals.  She is a long time member of the Coming Clean network in the USA and she works with European and Asian networks.

Fe de Leon is a researcher with the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) and has worked extensively on toxic substances particularly in the Great Lakes Basin, on the federal chemicals management plan and on international efforts to address persistent toxic substances through the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, the Great Lakes Quality Agreement, and a global treaty to address mercury.

Groundwater and PFAs: State of Knowledge and Practice

National Ground Water Association (NGWA) Press, Westerville, OH. ISBN: 1-56034-037-1, 114 pp, 2017

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are a group of chemicals that are emerging contaminants of concern due to their persistence in the environment, bioaccumulative potential, and toxicity.

Chemical structure of perfluorooctanoic acid

PFASs have previously been used in a range of industrial processes, consumer products (such as 3M’s Scotchgard fabric and upholstery protector), aviation hydraulic fluid and fire-fighting foam. The two main PFASs are perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). The unique properties of PFASs that make them useful in products and industrial processes also mean that they are persistent in the environment and highly mobile. They are therefore challenging to manage and remediate once released into the environment. They are potentially bioaccumulative and potential health effects may include developmental, reproductive and systemic effects and possibly cancer. PFOS has been listed as a persistent organic pollutant (POP) in Annex B of the Stockholm Convention since 2010. The use of PFOS in products has been phased out in Australia since the early 2000’s.

Beginning in October 2016, 37 scientists and engineers voluntarily collaborated through the National Ground Water Association to develop information on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) for the broader groundwater community. Using a consensus-driven process that included a public comment period, their efforts were completed toward the end of 2017.  NGWA published this PFAS document to assist members and other groundwater professionals who may be tasked with investigating the transport pathways and extent of PFASs in groundwater and surface water, assessing potential risks to receptors, or designing and constructing engineering controls to manage subsurface PFAS contamination.  The main purpose of this document is to summarize the current state of knowledge and practice regarding PFAS fate, transport, remediation, and treatment, recognizing that knowledge in this field continues to advance. This document also summarizes current technologies, methods, and field procedures being used to characterize sites and test remediation and treatment technologies. Temporarily available at http://www.ngwa.org/Professional-Resources/Pages/Groundwater-and-PFAS.aspx

PFAs can be used in fire fighting foams