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By Greg Barnes

Many eighth-graders at The Exploris School in downtown Raleigh had never heard of forever chemicals before they began their clean water project earlier this year.

Now they are on a mission to help educate people in nearby communities about drinking water contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS, and what can be done to eliminate the pollution.

At the core of their project is Design for Change, a global nonprofit movement that has been working for 10 years to empower students to inspire others to fix social problems.

According to its website, Design for Change has involved more than 30,000 students in 26 U.S. states on social issues that include poverty, quality education, health, nutrition and clean water. On a global stage, the program has been used in 70 countries, affecting an estimated 2 million people, the website says.

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Related: PFAS shows up in Haw River, Pittsboro water, but gets limited local attention

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Exploris is a charter school for children in kindergarten through eighth grade that has been participating in Design for Change since at least 2015. At the end of this month, 19 former Exploris students will travel to Rome, Italy, to meet with the pope as a reward for being recognized through the program as an Ambassador Team for their work on a years-long project involving racial injustice.

Eighth-graders at the Exploris School during a creek cleanup near Chavis Park as part of their Design for Change project. Photo courtesy of The Exploris School.

In 2016, a group of fourth- and fifth-graders from Exploris was recognized through the program for its work on providing nutritional support to Burmese refugees in the Raleigh area. Three students were selected to go on a trip to Beijing, China, along with four teachers. Other school projects have also been honored, said Jesse Francese, an Exploris educator who is among those who oversee the school’s Design for Change programs.

The Exploris School sits on Hillsborough Street, in the former education wing of Tabernacle Baptist Church. The building now bursts at the seams with children competing for so little space that many are sprawled out in the hallways. Exploris had been expected to move into a new,10-story building off Salisbury Street, but those plans may have fallen through and the school is now exploring other possibilities, Francese said.

Questions abound

A group of 10 students who are studying the PFAS issue found itself crammed into a closet of a room with red-brick walls, where a reporter for NC Health News agreed to be interviewed.

The students came well-prepared. Like all 76 eighth-graders at Exploris, this group has spent about two hours a day since the beginning of the school year learning about issues involving clean water, Francese said.

As part of Design for Change, the group is concentrating on PFAS contamination, paying particular attention to the Haw River and people who get their drinking water from it.

From left: Exploris students Jerry Robinson, Griffin Lee, Joseph Preble and DJ Pompey interview an NC Health News reporter about PFAS contamination. Photo credit: Greg Barnes

During the interview, the students peppered the reporter with questions:

“How does PFAS affect us, like, um, our bodies when we, like, drink contaminated water?” one student asked.

“What is PFAS used in?” asked another student.

The questions went on and on:

“How can we help the issue of PFAS in our water?”

“Who do you think is mostly at fault for our PFAS pollution?”

Developing an action plan

To help students focus on a particular issue, Design for Change uses a sequence of four evidence-based steps — feel, imagine, do and share.

The Exploris students are now in the feel and imagine phases, conducting interviews and brainstorming with community members about possible solutions to the PFAS problem. Other interviews conducted so far include those with Emily Sutton, the Haw River riverkeeper, Matt Starr, the Neuse River riverkeeper, and a scientist with the American Chemical Society.

The students know time is running short — they have less than two weeks to complete the project — but they believe they are on their way to making a difference.

“It’s such a big problem and a big issue so that there really is not a lot we can really accomplish, especially with, like, this three-week deadline,” student Will Payne said. “But you know, we can, like, raise awareness. If we focus on raising awareness, educating the public, making sure that everyone sees that this is a big problem …”

In the second phase of the project, students will brainstorm possible solutions to the problems PFAS create. The third phase will be to develop an action plan to bring those solutions to fruition. The last step will be to share what they’ve learned to inspire others to act.

Potential solutions

Francese said some students in the group are interested in exploring with a researcher at N.C. State University on whether it’s possible to reduce the amount of time it takes for a water sample to be tested and the results returned from a laboratory. Francese mentioned researcher Sierra Young, who has been experimenting with using small robotic boats to perform water sampling in areas that are dangerous or difficult to access.

“I’m not quite sure what exactly the students’ projects are, and I don’t necessarily work in the area of water testing,” Young said in an email. “But there are definitely opportunities for using robotics to aid in automating and improving the efficiency of the sampling process, and removing the human from the sampling to improve safety and reduce exposure.”

From left: Exploris students Evan Meglar, Sydney Mancini and Will Payne interview an NC Health News reporter for a project they are working on involving PFAS contamination. Photo credit: Greg Barnes.

Last month, NC Health News wrote about a Greensboro company responsible for discharging a large amount of the probable carcinogen 1,4 dioxane into the Haw River. A Greensboro official said it took about two weeks from the time a sample was taken in August before an independent laboratory returned the test results to the city showing the high concentration of 1,4 dioxane.

The state Department of Environmental Quality says it is investigating the release and Greensboro’s failure to notify cities downstream. A similar release was subsequently detected in Reidsville, and notifications were quickly made. On Friday, the DEQ said it had issued notices of violation to both cities for violating terms of their wastewater pretreatment programs.

Francese said students who are interested in studying the PFAS issue more thoroughly will be allowed to do so past the deadline.

Feeling frustrated

All of the students in the PFAS group expressed frustration that industries continue to release manmade chemicals into streams and rivers used for drinking water by so many North Carolinians.

They asked why the federal government has not regulated the chemicals and what other states with similar problems are doing in the absence of those regulations.(Some states have set significantly lower health advisories for two of the legacy PFAS, known as PFOA and PFOS, than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s advisory of 70 parts per trillion, either separately or in combination.)

Mostly, the students wanted to know what can be done to stop the pollution.

Student Sydney Mancini didn’t offer a solution, but she did provide an explanation.

“It’s the big industries and companies and it’s really hard to get them to change because it’s a lot about the money they’re making,” she said. “It’s difficult for them to change because they want to turn a profit.”

Greg Barnes

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years. Contact him at: gregbarnes401 at gmail.com

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