Creating a PFAS-Contaminated Meat SRM: A Q&A With NIST Chemists Melissa Phillips and Ben Place

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) research chemists Melissa Phillips and Ben Place are working to create a Standard Reference Material (SRM) to help industry and regulators detect the hazardous industrial chemical PFAS in meat. SRMs are meticulously measured materials that researchers can use as a quality control for their tests. Melissa is leading the logistics of the project and the interaction with stakeholders, while Ben is overseeing the work with the meat and the measurement of the amount of PFAS in it. NIST public affairs specialist Alex Boss interviewed Melissa and Ben to learn more about this project.

We hear you’ve been working to create an SRM for contaminated meat. Could you tell us about that?

Ben, can you talk about why PFAS is important?

Ben Place: Sure. PFAS is widely produced around the world as an industrial surfactant — for example, to make clothing or frying pans water- and oil-repellant, to insulate electric wires, as a floor sealant, or as a fire-fighting foam. A lot of research suggests that PFAS causes potential adverse health outcomes, including cancer, low infant birth weight, or immune-system problems. The FDA and USDA know about these adverse health outcomes and they’re just now finding out more about the presence of PFAS in meat and other food. It’s an emerging concern, so it has become a hot topic. They asked NIST to create an SRM meat sample contaminated by an accurately measured amount of PFAS to help them understand what humans are being exposed to, what kind of health outcomes result, and what kind of regulations are needed.

What did the farmer say when you told him what you intended to do with those samples?

How did NIST get the meat samples?

Ben: The meat came to us in big boxes of frozen ground-beef patties and ground-pork patties separated by butcher paper — an estimated total of 300 pounds (136 kilograms) of meat. In terms of what they look and smell like, there isn’t any difference between these patties and normal frozen meat patties.

How did the PFAS get into the meat?

What will the SRM be used for, and which agencies or companies will use it?

I think the SRM is primarily going to be used by researchers and regulators — I would assume that the FDA and USDA would be primary customers.

There is a general buzz in the food industry and big food companies about making sure that PFAS contamination is on the list of problems to be tackled — and they realize that they don’t have reliable methods to measure the amount of PFAS in food. This new SRM will be a step in that direction.

What have your family and friends said when you’ve told them about this work?

Melissa is from an area of Michigan that is just as contaminated as my area, so it gets kind of personal with some of our family members when they ask questions.

Are you going to get tired of working with contaminated meat over that period of time?

Whatever material you’re working on for an SRM, it becomes your baby. You don’t get tired of it, but I’m going to be extracting meat hundreds of times. It’s exactly the same steps each time. Exactly the same protocols. The fact that it’s really sticky and going to stick to my spatula and stick to my test tubes is going to cause me aggravation. That part, I imagine, I’m going to get tired of.

When you’re finished creating an SRM, it’s like a bird leaving the nest. It’s a bittersweet thing. You’re happy to watch it go off, but you’re also happy you no longer have to see it again except for when we relook at the SRM in five-plus years to make sure that everything about it is OK. I’ve felt that way about whatever SRM material I’ve worked with. You’re happy it’s out there being used, but you’re also very happy it’s no longer on your plate. And you’re happy that you’ve made a product that you can be proud of.

What do you like about this work?

But my favorite part of my job is helping people when they come to us and say, “We have this problem” and we’re able to actually produce something that’s going to help them. I enjoy working with stakeholders. I enjoy explaining what we can do for them and getting their feedback. It is the NIST mission. We are that support organization and we don’t do this for headlines. We do this because other agencies are trying to do their thing and they need our help, and we can help them do it better.

Ben: I agree. I’m trained in environmental chemistry, and you don’t go into environmental chemistry without a demand for application. I’m not off in my own little world developing new theories and ideas. Environmental chemistry is solving an obvious problem. Let’s fix something. Let’s do something.

Another part of each SRM project appeals to the scientist in me — that each project is a brand-new exploration for me. I’m super excited about all of the problems I’m going to run into and how to solve them. I became an analytical chemist to solve such problems, but also to figure out the minor things, like how to get the meat into the test tubes. Such questions are going to be a big part of getting this reference material ready.

I’m sure I’m going to have a lot of fun doing it, and (grinning as he says this) I’ll tell Melissa about how gross the meat is all the time. And send her pictures of it.

This post originally appeared on Taking Measure, the official blog of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on June 23, 2021.

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