What are PFAS?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been manufactured and used around the world since the 1940s, and evidence suggests that PFAS exposure can harm human health (USEPA, 2018). Recently in the United States, PFAS have been identified in water systems that serve more than 16 million people across 33 states; and water supplies for 6 million residents have been found to exceed the USEPA’s lifetime health advisory for PFOS and PFOA (Hu et al., 2016). In North Carolina, researchers have identified PFAS in the Cape Fear River basin, also at levels exceeding USEPA’s lifetime health advisory (Sun et al., 2016). Some of the PFAS chemicals identified in the Cape Fear River have not been identified in other PFAS exposed areas; thus, little is known about their environmental fate and transport or their impact on human health.
To better understand the extent of PFAS contamination in drinking water across North Carolina, the NC General Assembly funded an 18-month research program (referred to as the PFAS Testing, or PFAST, study) focused on documenting the presence of PFAS in public water supplies across the state. With over six institutions and more than 25 researchers participating in the program, effective science communication is essential yet also challenging. There is no single audience for scientific information, and the societal contexts surrounding different scientific issues vary, requiring communications approaches to be adapted for specific purposes (NASEM, 2017). The complexity of scientific methods and the way scientific research progresses also can make communications difficult, especially for scientific questions that involve uncertainty and risk, such as may arise with emerging contaminants in general and with the potential health effects of PFAS exposure specifically. Further, public trust in science varies, though trust in scientists as information sources