By Taya Davis, Summer Research Intern in Dr. Heather Stapleton’s Lab
This summer, I had the opportunity to work in Dr. Heather Stapleton’s lab where I gained experience on various environmental chemistry topics.
Dr. Stapleton’s work as part of the Duke Superfund Research Center focuses on prenatal exposures to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and other chemicals. The project utilizes a cohort of pregnant women and tracks their environmental exposures using silicone wristbands. These wristbands can simulate the conditions of chemicals in the body and are an innovative and non-invasive way of measuring what chemicals we come into contact with from day to day. The Stapleton lab extracts PAHs and other contaminants from the wristbands to better understand modes of exposure in our everyday lives. For this project, I participated in a practice home visit to understand what it is like to complete extensive sampling from someone’s home. From drinking water, couches, soil, and insulation, to various other household items, we are susceptible to all kinds of contaminants.
My research project for the summer focused on something I had never considered before. When we go to our local paint store, the focus is more on “which shade of blue matches the kitchen?” rather than on the chemical contents of the paint. The goal of my research was to determine whether the paints contained PFAS chemicals. PFAS stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. They are synthetic compounds that do not degrade easily and are found in products such as stain-resistant carpeting, non-stick cookware, paper packaging, and even drinking water. PFAS has been linked to adverse health effects such as developmental delays and decreased fertility. While there is some research on PFAS in paint, it is not extensive. Due to the risk of exposure from products and resources we use every day, I wanted to know whether paint could be a possible source. When considering the amount of paint needed for an entire room, how much are we being exposed to?
My study had two aims to obtain conclusive results. My first aim was to determine whether there was PFAS in 10 paint samples from 10 different brands. Once I got those results, I compared them to total fluorine measurements from another lab (Notre Dame University). Aim two assessed whether there was a loss of PFAS in paint over time due to a possible off-gassing effect, which could lead to exposure for people. The first aim tested for PFAS in paints using extraction techniques specific to liquid and gas chromatography. In the second aim, I painted strips of painter’s tape and tested for PFAS at different time points to evaluate a decrease of PFAS as time increased.
Through my project, I gained formal lab skills, conducted data integration on the Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS) instrument, and completed many calculations in Excel. After conducting various experiments, I determined there was PFAS in 6 of the 10 paint samples. Additionally, I determined there was an off-gassing effect for some PFAS that reduced their concentration over time, but not for other PFAS. The ultimate goal of testing for PFAS in paint is to conduct risk assessments, understand PFAS effects on vulnerable populations, and identify a possible occupational hazard for painters.
I thoroughly enjoyed my experience through the Superfund Research Internship Program. I acquired new knowledge about environmental sciences and the different paths that can be taken. There were also professional development opportunities that taught me more about graduate school and careers in environmental science, chemistry, and toxicology. Going forward, I will be more mindful of the chemical contents in products that I buy.