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UC, EPA researchers to study PFAS in local groundwater

people stand in field with some tents and a large pylon in the foreground
Andrew Higley
UC Marketing + Brand
Geoscientists have used UC's groundwater observatory to understand how water flows through the aquifer along the Great Miami River. Now they are turning their attention to understanding toxins such as PFAS in the water.

Researchers from the University of Cincinnati and elsewhere have been studying groundwater at an observatory along the Great Miami River in Crosby Township since 2017. A new study in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency will focus on what happens to toxins known as "forever chemicals," or PFAS, that seep into groundwater.

The observatory consists of monitoring wells at various depths within the Great Miami Aquifer. The aquifer is a source of drinking water for more than 2 million people in and around Butler and Hamilton counties. Sensors in the wells connect to a 25-foot-tall steel pylon that transmits readings at regular intervals. Additional wells were dug for this new study, which also involves scientists from the Pacific National Laboratory. Water and core samples were then collected.

"The goal is to try to integrate everything that's going on," says Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Annie Rowe, Ph.D. "Taking one snapshot from these cores, but using that to help us to predict long-term what's going on, and in particular, what might be going on with interactions of different sorts of chemical contaminants, of course, with PFAS being the one of the most interest."

RELATED: Crosby Township water sensors could be copied nationwide

two women and a man pose for  photo in a grassy field. they're wearing winter clothing
Andrew Higley
UC Marketing + Brand
UC graduate assistant Margaret "Megan" Naber, Assistant Professor Annette Rowe and Associate Professor Reza Soltanian are studying toxins in groundwater along the Great Miami River. The aquifer provides drinking water to many residents of Southwest Ohio.

It's important to understand what's going on in the groundwater system, Rowe says, so it can be protected long-term. She notes groundwater is hard to access, making it difficult to study. Groundwater systems are also vast, adding to the difficulty.

The research site is ideal for studying how surface water — and the nutrients and toxins in it — mix with water deep underground. Part of that understanding includes studying microbiological processes that are happening underground, too.

RELATED: Water quality monitoring along the Great Miami River and Aquifer

Rowe says besides being interested in the microbiology, researchers also want to know how different types of underground "architecture" affect water quality. The research area has a mix of porous and dense clay regions.

"We're operating under the hypothesis that these porous regions that interface with these kind of organic rich clay regions are really important hot spots for microbial activity," she says. "Understanding what's going on is really going to tell us something about how microbes are impacting the chemistry of water in the ground, in the subsurface, impacting the chemistry of groundwater; and then also, hopefully, how that might be interfacing or interacting with pollutants or other things that could be impacting groundwater quality."

Rowe expects the study will take several years.

The University of Cincinnati is a financial supporter of Cincinnati Public Radio.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.