CELS Alum at the Forefront of “Forever Chemical” Research and Consulting
By Hannah MacDonald, CELS Communication Fellow
Dr. Dylan Eberle has devoted his entire career to researching hazardous chemicals. “If it sounds like a big problem, that is because it is,” states Dr. Dylan Eberle, referring to a family of over 5,000 man-made chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) used in a wide range of consumer and industrial products including nonstick cookware, firefighting foams, and food packaging. These chemicals, which have been found to pose risks to human health and the environment, do not break down easily in the environment and are resistant to common remediation technologies. Due to their ubiquitousness and intractability, PFAS are often referred to as “forever chemicals”.
“My interest has always been in the practical implication of environmental geoscience,” states Dr. Eberle, an alumnus of the University of Rhode Island’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS) and a leading expert in PFAS. “So solving real problems in the real world is what drives me.” Eberle was initially interested in hydrogeology because it linked geosciences to the real-world problems of chemical contamination. In 2009, he began pursuing a research-based master’s degree under the guidance of hydrogeologist Dr. Thomas Boving, a professor in the Department of Geosciences.
Eberle’s research focused on innovative remediation processes that could be used to treat common soil and groundwater contaminants in the subsurface (i.e., in situ). Innovative in situ remediation processes can provide significant time and costs savings relative to above-ground treatment methods such as soil excavation and/or groundwater extraction and treatment. Based on the promising results of his master’s research, Eberle was awarded additional funding to study these chemicals and pursue his Ph.D. studying emerging contaminants.
The first time Dr. Eberle was introduced to PFAS was as a Ph.D. student studying organic chemistry in water environments in a course taught by Dr. Rainer Lohmann, a professor in URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography and a PFAS expert. Eberle learned that one of the most common sources of PFAS could be found in fire training areas where a fire suppressant known as aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) had been used. “A major question in the research was what happens if you treat classic contaminates with the conventional treatment technology and PFAS are present?” he recalls. Eberle, who was already studying treatment technologies for other chemicals at firefighting training stations, was eager to explore that question in his research. At the time, Eberle says he didn’t realize he was opening a door to his future. “Not only did it turn into the second chapter of my Ph.D., but also jump-started my career.”
The timing was perfect. Just as the world was beginning to understand the ubiquitous nature of PFAS in the environment and their impact on human health, Dr. Eberle set out into the job market. His Ph.D. and experience in emerging contaminants landed Eberle a position as a scientist with Geosyntec, a global consulting and engineering firm.
In 2015, the EPA issued a revised lifetime drinking water health advisory for two PFAS compounds, a game-changer in the field of emerging contaminants. “That became the real impetus and kick-off of PFAS investigations,” states Eberle, who is now working with teams at Geosyntec to address multiples issues associated with the PFAS problem. He has led sampling campaigns seeking to identify PFAS in all types of environmental media (soils, groundwater, sediments, etc.), developed conceptual site models for PFAS fate and transport, and worked on PFAS forensics and litigation. “It’s been incredibly exciting and rewarding because it is this rapidly evolving regulatory, remediation, and legal landscape,” he explains. “All of these things are being figured out in real-time, which is extremely challenging but also quite rewarding.”
Dr. Eberle is now following his passion for working on real-world problems linked to geosciences and making his mark by addressing the health and environmental impacts of PFAS. “This problem isn’t going away, there is going to be tons of PFAS work,” he says, “It is more complex than the scientific and engineering community has previously addressed.”
Eberle, who attributes his career success to the opportunities and expertise gained at URI, encourages students interested in consulting work to get as much field experience as possible. “It really changes your understanding of how data is collected and that is super important,” he explains, “The ability to say I have installed wells, taken groundwater and soil samples, and have my Hazardous Waste and Emergency Response certificate, tells potential employers that you’re ready to go.”