What's in the Water? A place-based unit investigating PFAS contamination in central NC drinking water
The drinking water contamination crisis in Flint, MI, in 2014-2019 raised public outcry and awareness of the potential health consequences of regulatory failures and industrial threats to this essential natural resource. But students and the public alike may see such sensational stories on the news and imagine that drinking water contamination is a rare and remote occurrence.
In this poster, we share a newly-developed set of place-based lessons related to ongoing drinking water contamination with PFAS chemicals in central North Carolina. Using an inquiry-oriented approach, undergraduates discover how water and contaminants move through the global, local, and urban water cycles; how regulated and established contaminants differ from emerging ones; how animal and human health studies and their inherent ambiguities are leveraged in conversations about local and national regulations; and how power and privilege play out as citizens and local government leaders grapple with if, when, and how to take action. Throughout the unit, students engage in team-based discussions, data analysis, and literature research on these ongoing issues. The unit culminates in a community-engaged project that allows students to explore multiple avenues for engaging in advocacy and partnering with local community organizations.
Our lessons are developed with introductory-level university environmental science and biology courses in mind, but could easily be adapted to a high-school context. This place-based unit is localized to central North Carolina and could be adopted by other universities in the region; However, PFAS contamination is widespread across the U.S., and we will offer recommendations for colleagues interested in developing similar lessons for their own local settings.