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How fungi and theatrical performance can tackle the problem of PFAS contamination

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Fungi under the microscope. Cloudcatcher Media.

Brought to you by Cosmos Magazine and The Echo

When scientists first discovered the chemistry of per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, PFAS, in the 1930s, they didn’t know we’d be struggling to remove them from the environment and human bodies nearly a century later.

‘PFAS are called forever chemicals because they’re really resistant to environmental degradation and they hang around in our bodies for a really long time,’ says Michelle Sims. ‘There are not many ways that we know how to destroy PFAS chemicals.’

Sims is a PhD candidate in Environmental Contamination and Microbial Ecotoxicology at Flinders University in Australia. She is also deeply passionate about science communication and involving the wider community in scientific research: ‘I think, at the end of the day, taxpayer money is spent on research and we should be getting better and better at communicating science rather than getting worse.’

Sims is bridging that gap is through her involvement in an innovative project – Floods of Fire – where scientists, artists, citizens, and communities collaborate to showcase South Australians’ creativity and stories in response to climate change.

Sims’ research looks at the effect of PFAS on the microbial life that lives in soils, an unusual topic to bring to an arts festival.

‘Could PFAS drive pathogenic microbes that could affect plants and humans? We know with climate change fungal pathogens are on the rise,’ Sims explains to Cosmos: ‘So, if things like PFAS are also driving fungal pathogens, then that could be a big problem now that [PFAS are] everywhere.

‘Then I go down a little bit deeper. What does PFAS actually do to individual fungi? I look at how [PFAS] affects its growth and what it looks like, does it look distressed?’

PFAS are a group of manufactured chemicals that are entirely synthetic, meaning they don’t exist in nature. Since the 1950s, PFAS have been used widely in consumer products and industrial processes due to their useful chemical and physical properties. PFAS molecules can repel water, oil, stains, and soil, they’re incredibly stable chemically and thermally, and can reduce friction.

But they’re now widespread in our environment and detectible in human blood. Sims says that ‘the problem now has gotten so big that it’s in the rainwater, it’s kind of everywhere.’

And research is only just beginning to describe the full range of effects on environment and health. Last week, new research published in the journal Exposure and Health found a link between PFAS levels in blood and levels of harmful blood lipids associated with cardiovascular risk.

PFAS contamination is also intertwined with one of the biggest threats facing humanity today: climate change. According to Sims, climate change can make environmental PFAS contamination even worse.

‘For example, if there’s contamination in one area of soil and then we get lots of floods, that just spreads the contaminated soil around lots of places,’ says Sims.

‘The other way that PFAS and climate change are connected is in the making of PFAS chemicals. Fluorinated greenhouse gases are released, and these are thought to be thousands, to tens of thousands, of times more potent than carbon dioxide.’

And while we have no difficulties synthesising new PFAS molecules, it’s much harder to get rid of them because they do not break down naturally in the environment.

‘One of the ways that we can destroy [PFAS] is by heating them to really high temperatures, but this also releases these fluorinated greenhouse gases.’

Instead, she’s looking for environmentally and economically friendly solutions to remediate contaminated ecosystems in the world of fungi and bacteria. Sims is digging down into which genes are being expressed by microbes exposed to PFAS and whether they might be involved in degrading PFAS.

It’s this story she brings to the innovative artistic work, Floods of Fire, which opened on the weekend at the Adelaide Festival of the Arts. Sims helped create a play called The Making and Unmaking of PFAS.

Floods of Fire was conceived and directed by Artistic Director Airan Berg, who spoke to Cosmos about the project last year. Led by Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) and presented in collaboration with Adelaide Festival, The University of Adelaide, and more than 100 partner organisations – Floods of Fire culminated in a 2-day festival on March 16-17.

Presented Saturday night was a performance by the Floods of Fire Citizen’s Orchestra – an intercultural and intergenerational orchestra and chorus. Through a series of workshops, participants had collaborated with Music Directors Tim Steiner and Ricardo Baptista, ASO players and local musicians to create music and songs that reflect their experiences of our climate reality.

On Sunday, electronic music duo Electric Fields joined ASO in a program featuring new music created for Floods of Fire. This included the world premiere of the Floods of Fire Symphony, a collaboration between South Australian composers, musicians, and the ASO.

Sims was involved in Saturday’s free event – Our Voices, Our Dream – in which participants presented short artistic interventions in response to climate change. One of these pop-ups was the theatrical performance based on Sims’ research and its ties to climate change, created and performed by year 5 and 6 students from Fulham North Primary School.

Recounting the collaboration involved in the lead up Sims says: ‘I came to a class of year 5s and 6s and they were all HIP kids – high intellectual potential – and I gave about a 20 minute talk about my research, which was great because I’ve never given a talk to [younger] students before.

‘And then they went away with a playwright, Emily Steel, and did a bit of improv and then created a script.’

In the 5 minute performance a salesperson enlists the help of a scientist to make a product that is ‘waterproof, fireproof, and spaghetti proof’: PFAS.

‘And then the scientist comes to the salesperson’s house and says “I’ve had a change of heart, there’s something wrong with the product. You can’t keep making it. You have to stop making it”. But it’s making them lots of money, so the salesperson doesn’t want to stop,’ says Sims.

What follows is a ‘fungi dream sequence’ where the salesperson, sleeping surrounded by her money, encounters fungi that warn her of the dangers of PFAS to the environment to change her mind. In the end, the salesperson and scientist team up with the fungi to try to undo their wrongs.

‘The play is a good dramatisation of the whole process and realisation that PFAS is bad, and that it’s harmful and we need to stop making it,’ says Sims, who is encouraged by the recent steps taken to ban the use of certain PFAS in Australia.

As of December 2023, 3 of the most notorious PFAS molecules – perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctanesulphonic acid (PFOS), and perfluorohexanesulphonic acid (PFHxS) – have been listed in Australia’s Industrial Chemicals Environmental Management Standard (iChEMS), which was established in 2021.

The iChEMS Register is a national approach to managing chemical use, storage, handling and disposal. Chemicals are listed in one of seven schedules based on their risk characteristics, with those that pose greater risks having tighter controls.

PFOA, PFOS, and PFHxS are now considered Schedule 7 chemicals: ‘industrial chemicals that are likely to cause serious or irreversible harm to the environment with no essential uses’ with controls to ‘prohibit or restrict import, export, manufacture or end use’.

‘So now lots of regulation is coming in on those big three ones,’ says Sims. ‘But there are like 9,000 PFAS.’

Sims will keep looking for a way to degrade them in the microbes she studies: ‘It’s a bit controversial research now because there’s a lot of researchers that think it’s impossible. A lot of researchers think it is possible, but you don’t know until you try.’

This article was originally published on Cosmos Magazine and was written by Cosmos. Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine. We aim to inspire curiosity in ‘The Science of Everything’ and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

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