Deliz Receives EPA Grant to Build Community Resilience Against PFAS Exposure Due to Flooding

Katherine Deliz Quiñones, Ph.D., a lecturer in environmental engineering sciences in the Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure & Environment (ESSIE) within the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, received support from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program to help build resilience in vulnerable communities.

As lead principal investigator, Dr. Deliz will assess how flooding, caused by extreme weather events in Florida, affects the migration of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from contaminated sites to nearby communities. The group will also determine societal factors that could exacerbate the exposure risk and potential health outcomes of vulnerable groups in the population.

According to the EPA, PFAS are man-made chemicals that have been used in industry since the 1940’s. PFAS applications range from commercial and household products, to clothing and food packaging. Once released into the environment they are very hard to degrade. PFAS can now be found in water, soil, plants, and animals – including humans. Nearly everyone has detectable levels of PFAS in their body. Despite widespread PFAS contamination and evidence of their adverse health effects, there are no U.S. federal regulations to enforce lower PFAS levels in the environment.

John Bowden, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Physiological Sciences, collects sediment samples for PFAS analysis.

Dr. Deliz says that growing up in Puerto Rico and experiencing the constant devastation from natural disasters gave her a clear understanding of how the fragility of the surrounding natural and built environments can affect community health.

“I am very aware how the lack of preparedness resulting from uninformed management, and limited public involvement can affect seemingly healthy communities,” Dr. Deliz added. “It has always been my dream to work in improving public health. I understand that it is a task that can’t be accomplished without first enhancing communities’ resilience against environmental hazards.”

With the $800,000 grant, this project will be the first to use a Holistic Environmental Health Research model, which considers natural, social and built environments to provide insight on different PFAS pathways. She intends to show that this systems-based model will improve risk assessment and management in vulnerable communities that are prone to flooding.

This transdisciplinary collaboration involves the effort of multiple researchers within the University of Florida, including Jean Claude Bonzongo, Ph.D., a professor in environmental engineering sciences, and Antarpreet Jutla, Ph.D., an associate professor in environmental engineering sciences; John Bowden, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Physiological Sciences; and Eric Coker Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Global Health.

“This project engages a diverse team including UF faculty and local community-based organizations such as Fight for Zero in Brevard County and the Jacksonville Gullah Geechee Nation Community Development Corp. Together we will support the EPA’s mission to perform solution-driven research that can protect both human health and the environment,” Dr. Deliz said.

The project began in August as the researchers will survey Brevard County, FL, as a case study, Duval County has been selected to demonstrate broader impacts in terms of translating relevant findings and resilience-building activities. The results, however, are intended to provide more than localized solutions.

“Ultimately, this community-driven study will allow our team to develop comprehensive approaches for environmental protection, emergency management and exposure mitigation, targeted at building healthy and environmental resilient communities beyond our case study area,” Dr. Deliz said.

By Reba Liddy Hernandez

ESSIE Marketing and Communications Specialist