Li and Research Team Receive USDA Grant to Explore Ways to Mitigate Crop Uptake of PFAS

January 25, 2022

IIT-affiliated faculty member, Dr. Hui Li, along with a team of researchers, was recently awarded a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to study crop uptake of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and how to prevent it.

Li, a professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, is joined by four co-principal investigators - IIT-affiliated faculty members, Stephen Boyd and Wei Zhang, as well as MSU faculty, Ray Hammerschmidt and Kurt Steinke.

PFAS contamination has made headlines around the country, and there is mounting concern about the effects these chemicals have on public health. In response, MSU has invested in the Center for PFAS Research and has developed several multi-institutional, nationwide partnerships to address the problem. Research is looking to quantify the exposure risk to humans and the environment, develop possible remediation strategies, and explore PFAS alternatives for industries that have relied on them.

This grant will allow Li and his team to evaluate novel ways to immobilize PFAS in soils to prevent plants from coming in contact with them. Since the group believes soil pore water is the primary carrier by which the chemicals move to the plant root zone, they hypothesize that soil amendments could prevent plants from taking in PFAS.

“We believe the primary vehicles used by PFAS to enter agricultural lands are contaminated irrigation water or land-applied biosolids, which is used in the agriculture community to improve soil health and provide nutrients,” Li said. “But there is increasing evidence that they inadvertently introduce harmful chemicals to soil, water and plants.

“It’s extremely difficult to stop PFAS from entering the environment entirely, but we’re working to uncover methods that make the chemicals less bioavailable to plants for uptake.”

The team will perform lab, greenhouse and field experiments to quantify PFAS in soils irrigated with PFAS-contaminated water. Then, they will test two sorbent materials — layered double hydroxides and modified biochars — and their ability to take in PFAS. Researchers will assess potential PFAS leaching from these materials.

They will seek to validate the findings by comparing test plots of carrots, corn and wheat using soil amendments to control plots without amendments.

“This research will ideally identify field-scale approaches to preventing PFAS from entering crops,” Li said. “It’s important that any strategies we design are efficient and implementable on agricultural operations of all sizes.”

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