Scientists seek your soil for century-chemical study

University of Adelaide researchers are calling on South Australian citizen scientists to donate soil samples from their backyard gardens for a study examining how widely spread per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are in our home gardens.

Soil garden bed credit Greta Hoffman

Picture credit: Greta Hoffman

Sometimes described as century chemicals or forever chemicals due to their high resistance to degradation, PFAS are harmful to human health and the environment.

“There are various health risks associated with PFAS, due to their persistence in the environment and ability to accumulate in the human body after exposure,” says Dr Matthias Salomon of the University of Adelaide’s School of Agriculture, Food and Wine.

“In the environment, PFAS can contaminate soil, water and wildlife. It can also accumulate in food chains and affect ecological systems, such as soil micro-organisms, which are important for soil function and health.”

Dr Salomon, whose research focuses on soil health, has previously investigated heavy metal contamination in residential areas. He says organic contaminants, such as PFAS, are less commonly studied.

“Our understanding of the health effects of PFAS is developing rapidly. At the same time, little is known about PFAS in domestic gardens, and people could be exposed through gardening activities,” says Dr Salomon.

“PFAS are found in a wide range of consumer products, such as non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, and some firefighting foams. Through their use and subsequent disposal, PFAS can leach into the environment.”

Dr Salomon and his team, which also consists of Dr Jungho Su, Dr Shervin Kabiri, Hannah Thwaites, Professor Melissa Nursey-Bray and Professor Timothy Cavagnaro, will collect samples from 100 citizens within 18 metropolitan Adelaide councils.

He says this project, which is supported by a FAME Sustainability grant from the University of Adelaide, can only be achieved with the help of citizen scientists.

“It would be almost impossible to collect as many samples as we need without the public’s help,” says Dr Salomon.

Those who wish to participate can register their interest at this website, until 24 April. Participants will be selected based on their location to ensure researchers receive data from across the designated area.

More information is available here.

Garden bed credit Markus Spiske

Photo credit: Markus Spiske

Selected participants will be asked for their address and will be mailed a sampling kit, a questionnaire, a zip-lock bag, and a pre-paid return envelope. Samples must be returned within two weeks.

These samples will help scientists and local governments understand the scope of the problem, and how best to address it.

“The data will be published academically and non-academically and completely de-identified. The results could then inform public health policies, land management decisions, regulatory actions, and further scientific research,” Dr Salomon says.

"We will not report any identifying information to government bodies or agencies, and will only supply information to the study participant if they want to receive it."

Participants can receive their individual soil test results via email, with analysis results anticipated to be available by the end of June, although this timeline is subject to potential unforeseen delays. The academic results of the study are expected to be published by the end of the year.

While there is no reason for the public to worry about their garden soil, Dr Salomon says this is an understudied subject.

“The risks PFAS pose to humans and the environment warrant investigation. I hope we can improve our understanding and, where necessary, take the right action,” he says.

Tagged in featured story, PFAS, soil science, citizen science, health