rss icon

Saturday, 07 July 2018 16:46

Q&A: Fernanda Wilson, Ph.D.

Written by 
Rate this item
(0 votes)
Fernanda Wilson, Ph.D. Fernanda Wilson, Ph.D.

Environmental engineering lead, Fishbeck Thompson Carr & Huber Inc.

The emergence of PFAS contamination in Kent County’s Plainfield Township and at other sites in Michigan and around the world has environmental consulting firms racing to catch up. Grand Rapids-based Fishbeck Thompson Carr & Huber Inc. (FTC&H) recently opened a new division aimed at addressing PFAS issues. Dr. Fernanda Wilson, the practice’s environmental engineering lead, spoke with MiBiz about the widespread issues with the chemicals, which for decades were used for industrial purposes, fire-fighting foam and consumer goods.

What was the impetus for FTC&H to expand with a practice specific to PFAS?

We have been working with emerging contaminants for many years. (We have an) established environmental division that deals with different things as it relates to air permits, or due diligence, and remediation sites. Then PFAS came along as the rising emergent contaminant, and it’s been a problem worldwide. There is a lot of information regarding PFAS in Australia and Europe, and even in the U.S. You have different states that are at different levels of how they’re dealing with PFAS.

How would you say it’s impacted Michigan?

Here in Michigan, we have the air base in Oscoda that had contamination that has been known for a couple of years now. I have (been at) the company for almost a year, and just about the time that I joined the company, there was a rise of the Rockford PFAS issue and we had those residents that were concerned. We ended up being part of it and offering the service to test the water by the location in Rockford. We also have employees from Fishbeck that lived in the Rockford area, even in our division. We had colleagues that were keeping up with the news. They wanted to test their water as well as (help) clients in the area.

Was setting up this practice different from other expansions for FTC&H?

We felt that we should help the community, both our clients and our employees. Then we started doing the tests and looking for more (contaminants). Usually when we address problems in the company, often it’s by teamwork, so we often establish a group with people with different backgrounds. We have geologists and engineers, people with different backgrounds that come together to troubleshoot the different projects that we have. That was basically how we addressed that rising issue.

Despite all the recent media coverage related to the Wolverine World Wide example, is PFAS really a new issue or has this been lingering for quite some time?

PFAS means a big group. You can have up to 3,000 different chemicals. Currently when people talk about PFAS, you’re thinking about PFOS and PFOA, which are the ones that are a long chain with eight carbons and a bunch of fluorides. They’re very stable — and toxic — and it was used in a bunch of products. When you think about the Teflon cookware, that was that PFOS or PFOA structure. We have been using that anywhere from the ’50s up to 2000. In 2000, that’s when 3M phased out PFOS, and then between 2010 and 2015, other companies agreed to that. We have been using that for 50 years. As we used it, it has spread into the environment, and it’s pretty resistant. It travels well with groundwater. So I would say that virtually everybody who lives on the planet has some PFAS in them.

Many people would be surprised to learn just how widespread of an issue this is. What should people be paying attention to regarding PFAS?

I’d say that it’s very dynamic, knowledge-wise. More and more information is gathered. But if we think about our daily lives, as of right now the understanding is that the main exposure (is from) digestion. So if you want to avoid exposure, you will focus more on what you’re digesting — (for example,) contaminated water. That’s why they say it’s OK to take a bath or take a shower because the skin contact is not as bad as digesting it. For the most part, at least when you think about PFOS and PFOA, they’re not really volatile. Even if you’re showering, you’re not expected to inhale it or anything. It’s more related to what you eat.

Given the digestion of food aspect, how should people be thinking about what they eat?

I would say just don’t cook in a Teflon pan. Although, nowadays, industrial wise, they (started using) less harmful (chemicals). … They used to be longer molecules with eight carbons, and nowadays they’re using other chemicals that are five or six. They seem to be less toxic, but they are still very persistent. If you learn that your water is contaminated, find a different source of water — probably bottled water — until you can figure it out to solve your drinking water problem. But you will probably be OK taking showers.

Given the widespread nature of the PFAS issue, do you see this as something that engineers at FTC&H or other firms around the world will be battling for years?

Lifetimes. I would say so. Because the way it goes about, right now we are in the stage of doing sampling and investigating and finding where it’s at. Then, the next stage would be to figure out a better way to deal with it and to remediate it. Some of the technologies that will be used in the future are not developed yet.

Is it safe to assume that remediation will be costly for various industries and municipalities?

It’s hard to tell, but probably. At this point, what we know is that we are finding where (the contaminants) are and different municipalities, industries and residents are finding the problems. Knowledge will be very important so that communities and individuals can make informed decisions.

Given the scope and depth of this issue, what other industries should have a seat at the table as we move from the identification phase into remediation?

There are a number of other industries that have historically used the PFAS compounds, or (the chemicals) are in products and materials they use. They include the pulp and paper industry, electronics manufacturing, textiles and fabrics. Electroplaters also have used these compounds to protect their workers. Industries that have used these compounds are becoming much more aware.

Read 685 times Last modified on Sunday, 08 July 2018 21:25

Breaking News

July 2018
S M T W T F S
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30 31 1 2 3 4

Follow MiBiz