Scholar Spotlight – Olivia Chagnon

Olivia Chagnon is a Biology major and current ROUTES Scholar on her first research co-op in the PFAS Project Lab of the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute (SSEHRI), which is led by Dr. Phil Brown. In this role, Olivia is responsible for conducting qualitative and quantitative research to identify new and existing PFAS contamination sites to be added to the contamination site tracker database, as well as providing social media management assistance on the PFAS Project website. Most recently, Olivia attended the APHA Annual Meeting in Philadelphia to learn more about the field of environmental public health.

PFAS, also known as forever chemicals, are a class of over 5,000 different per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (including PFOS, PFOA, and GenX), which are not currently regulated by the federal government. PFAS chemicals are found in materials such as firefighting foams, nonstick products, and food packaging, and have historically been used in industrial processes like chrome plating. They are incredibly persistent in the environment and in the body, often leading to the contamination of drinking water sources. Exposure can result in negative health effects such as thyroid disorders, liver damage, high cholesterol, cancers, and decreased fertility. Olivia’s research includes prominent contamination sites such as Hoosick Falls, Pease Air Force Base, and Wurtsmith Air Force Base where local activist groups have become well-established and media coverage is extensive.

“Our team often uses news media and government documents to gather data to be included in our contamination site database,” explains Olivia. “For any given site, we are investigating fields such as the source of contamination, specific PFAS detection levels, local regulatory response, and any relevant legislation. We also use social media and interviews to gain information about any activist groups that may have formed in affected communities. I often scour documents to find data and occasionally reach out to local government officials or nonprofits to obtain missing information. Our goal in building this contamination site tracker is to create a resource for community members and other groups to use in gaining an understanding of the extent of contamination and actions being taken in affected communities. It will also be used in our own research as we work to understand these rapidly developing activist efforts.”

Olivia’s research is funded by the The New Chemical Class Activism: Mobilization Around Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) NSF Grant which aims to “explore the development of activist efforts aimed at raising awareness, advocate for federal and state regulation of PFAS chemicals, and fight for the government and industry to be held accountable for contamination,” says Olivia. Olivia’s research studies have shown a dramatic increase in the amount of known contamination sites throughout the country and internationally in the past few years, which is largely due to increased news coverage and growing activism near contaminated areas. Phil’s research team tracks these sites using an interactive map of PFAS contamination in partnership with the Environmental Working Group.

“The health effects that can result from the environmental contamination of PFAS are extensive and in some ways not completely understood. It’s important that individuals are aware of the potential contaminants that are in their drinking water and households so that they can access resources to prevent exposure,” explains Olivia. “Our mission is to improve public health by doing all that we can to inform communities and ensure they are protected. We serve as a voice for the greater population to advocate for federal regulation in order to start limiting the chemicals that can cause so many adverse health issues. Many people do not know just how much environmental contaminants can influence their well-being because they had never been educated about such issues.”

Currently, Olivia and the team are looking at the factors influencing the rise of community groups in certain areas and how these groups are interconnected. Additionally, the PFAS Project is now working to inform the general public on how influential local activism can be in persuading the EPA and federal government to regulate PFAS chemicals, which has yet to be achieved. Olivia will be studying abroad in Australia starting in January 2020 and is scheduled to complete her degree in May 2021. She plans to take a gap year after graduation and hopes to attend medical school and pursue a career researching environmental health/medicine. We are happy to have welcomed Olivia as a ROUTES Scholar and are excited to see what she does in the future!

Written by Alessandra Bryant