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PFAS chemicals found in school uniforms

A recent study involving the work of Notre Dame researchers found high levels of dangerous chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in children’s school uniforms sold across North America.

The study, published earlier this month in the journal “Environmental Science and Technology Letters,” found elevated levels of fluorine in 65 percent of children’s textiles sampled, but the concentrations were highest in school uniforms. PFAS are manmade chemicals particularly desirable for their stain-resistant properties, hence their usage in school uniforms.

“PFAS are very good surfactants because of the way they are made,” said Graham Peaslee, a lead researcher behind the study and professor of physics at Notre Dame. “One part of the molecules is water-loving, and the other part is oil-loving, and these molecules like to line the layers between water and air or water and oils. Thus, if you apply PFAS to paper or textiles, you achieve quite high water and stain resistance on the material.” 

The study investigated a total of 72 textile products purchased online in American and Canadian markets in 2020 and 2021. Researchers focused on products marketed as water/stain resistant, windproof or wrinkle resistant. Other items tested include outerwear like raincoats and mittens, accessories like bibs and baby shoes and other miscellaneous clothing like sweatshirts and swimwear.

But PFAS come with a cost. Known as forever chemicals, they are very persistent in the environment.

“Think thousands of years for each molecule,” Peaslee said. “The product using PFAS might decay away in 60 days, but then 100 percent of the PFAS on its surface will be released to the landfill leachate and enter the surface and groundwater pool where we subsequently drink them.” 

Beyond this, many PFAS are known to be bioaccumulative, meaning they can build up in the body over time.

“Many have been found to have human toxicity, involving cancers, thyroid disease, hypertension, endocrine systems, ulcerative colitis and immune system suppression to name a few,” Peaslee said. They have also been linked to an increased risk of asthma, obesity and neurodevelopmental and behavioral problems.

The reason for the concern regarding children’s school uniforms is that children are much more sensitive to chemicals than adults, mainly because of their body weight. A small amount of toxin is a much larger dose for a child than it is for an adult who weighs twice as much. And any amount of toxin can have an impact on a child’s development.

“Children have rapidly developing systems in their body, and chemicals can often alter those developments in a bad way, while in adults, the systems are already largely developed,” Peaslee said. 

But particularly worrying to Peaslee is the immunosuppression capabilities of PFAS observed in the body.

“The more in the blood sera, the less effective any vaccine becomes,” he said. “In this way, PFAS don’t just encourage one disease to form, but any opportunistic disease or cancer can get past the natural immune system more easily.”

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys from the CDC routinely find detectable levels of PFAS in blood samples of children between the ages of three and 11. PFAS can enter the body from exposure to skin or inhalation of contaminated dust in the air. Because of how useful they are as surfactants, they are ubiquitous in modern life.

“It is a much wider problem than just clothing, since there are over 200 industrial or commercial uses for PFAS published in a review paper in 2020,” Peaslee said.

The items tested were all initially screened at Notre Dame using particle-induced gamma-ray emission spectroscopy (PIGE), a method developed by Peaslee to test for the presence of fluorine. Using this method, his lab has detected PFAS in face masks, cosmetics, fast food wrappers and even drinking water.

“There is no consumer option to purchase clothing that can be washed instead of clothing that comes coated with chemicals to reduce stains,” Peaslee said. “We hope one of the outcomes of this work would be increased labeling of textiles to fully inform the purchaser of the chemicals used to treat the fabric prior to sale so consumers have the ability to pick garments that were not treated with chemicals for their children.”

Contact Matthew Broder at mbroder@nd.edu.

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Jenkins addresses faculty, outlines goals for University

Notre Dame will launch efforts to more effectively communicate its achievements in research, global engagement and diversity and inclusion, University President Fr. John Jenkins said in his annual address to the faculty Tuesday evening.

A recent survey authorized by The University last year revealed that Notre Dame is significantly less well known for its research than it is for its Catholic mission and football program, Jenkins said. Vice president for public affairs and communications Joel Curran will coordinate a strategy to better advertise Notre Dame’s research and global engagement.

“We must strive to inform a national and global audience about our academic work,” Jenkins said. 

Jenkins added that it is important that a greater emphasis on research does not lead to a decrease in the quality of teaching. 

Gauging public perception helps understand the perspectives of benefactors and prospective students, he said.

“It would be foolish to neglect public perceptions of The University for we know that such perceptions drive the students who apply to attend, the faculty we can attract and the support we receive from benefactors,” Jenkins said.

In addition to improving the perception of research programs, Jenkins said, The University also aims to improve the research programs themselves. 

Jenkins announced two new University goals, centered on graduate programs, asserting that Notre Dame will aim “to provide superb graduate and professional programs that are grounded in disciplinary excellence, foster interdisciplinary connections and are applied to the world’s most pressing problems and for advanced human understanding through scholarship and research that seeks to heal, enlighten and unify.”

Jenkins urged the faculty to help foster a “speak up” culture that can prevent sexual misconduct scandals that have plagued other universities, referencing the program “Living Notre Dame’s Values,” instituted by the office of human resources.

“We must also emphasize the importance of reporting misconduct of any kind and ensuring appropriate follow-up to such reports,” he said.

As a part of ongoing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, Jenkins revealed the construction of the new Center for Diversity and Inclusion in LaFortune Student Center will begin in December. Jenkins also highlighted that this year’s incoming class is the most diverse in Notre Dame history with students of color and international students composing 40% of the class.

Jenkins went on to comment on the breadth of the opinion of speakers and faculty invited to campus in recent years, ranging from “1619 Project” journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and former speaker of the House Paul Ryan. 

“I understand that this range of views creates tensions and draws criticism from one group toward another,” he said, adding that he views the range of opinion as a “great strength” for The University and hopes to continue to welcome a wide array of views on campus in the future.

Jenkins turned his focus to the wage increase that took effect in August. “In July, The University announced a $25 million commitment to increase base compensation for eligible faculty, staff and student workers. This followed a $14 million one-time employee appreciation award for eligible employees in April and a $50 million pool for this year’s annual merit increases” Jenkins said, touting the largest recurring compensation increase in The University’s history. 

“Our challenge at Notre Dame in the next decade will be to produce fruits worthy of the blessings we have received.” Jenkins declared, “And the hopes so many have in The University to be ever more powerfully a force for good in the nation, the world and the church.”

Contact Liam Kelly at lkelly8@nd.edu

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Notre Dame inches up national college rankings

Notre Dame was ranked No. 18 in the U.S. News & World Report best national university rankings released Monday.

The list, which ranks 443 U.S. colleges and universities, ranks Notre Dame as tied for No. 18 with Columbia University. Notre Dame was ranked a spot below at No. 19 in last year’s rankings.

Columbia University fell in the rankings from No. 2 to No. 18 following a data falsification scandal. According to The New York Times, the scandal and the forthcoming ranking drop called into question the basis of U.S. News ranking

The U.S. News rankings are often advertised by elite schools in order to attract prospective students.

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New study improves monoclonal antibody analysis

A recent Notre Dame study conducted by the College of Engineering has developed an improved method of analyzing monoclonal antibodies, which can be used to treat various diseases.

Monoclonal antibodies are often used to treat cancers and arthritis because of their ability to boost the immune system.

Merlin Bruening, a professor of engineering at Notre Dame, worked as principal investigator in this study.

“We’re working on capturing specific monoclonal antibodies that you might be taking for a treatment for some diseases,” Bruening said.

The project has been ongoing for over five years, but the researchers made more significant progress in the last few. Monoclonal antibodies have only recently risen as a viable source of treatment and became especially relevant due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Bruening said their process could be used in analyzing antibodies to treat this virus.

“It’s amazing to me that antibody proteins are now drugs,” Bruening said.

Because monoclonal antibody drugs are harder to produce than other small molecule drugs, they take more time to develop. Junyan Yang, a fourth-year doctoral student in the chemical and biomolecular engineering department, has played an active role in conducting the experiments surrounding the antibodies and refining the process of capturing them.

He said the researchers analyze antibodies by first flowing a “fermentation broth” through a membrane filter in order to capture the monoclonal antibody. From there, they use a secondary antibody that binds to the captured one and measures its fluorescence in the form of a light signal so they can determine its concentration.

“We want to make sure this batch of the monoclonal antibody has enough concentration that people are looking for so that they are safe,” Yang said.

Once they determine that the monoclonal antibody has the correct conditions, it is ready for patient use and can go out from the lab. 

In the future, the research group aims to develop tests that can quickly test the fermentation broth for the right characteristics, such as the correct concentration and functional groups. By doing so, adjustments can be made to reach the right conditions in a matter of minutes rather than days.

The project has important ramifications for the manufacturing process of monoclonal antibodies. According to Bruening, instead of creating a new system for every new monoclonal antibody that a pharmaceutical company may develop, these filters may be applied to any process, making it far more efficient.

While this process has come a long way, Bruening clarified that it is constantly evolving. In fact, the research group hope to eventually make it publicly available. They have a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, which opens the doors to the commercialization of the membranes. They are also currently working with a company to bring it to the market, because it is too difficult for people to make themselves.

In the meantime, improvements continue to be made, and the group plans to further refine and develop the process while remaining optimistic about the future.

“We need to improve it first,” Bruening said. “And then hopefully commercialize it.”

Elena Que


Contact Elena at eque@nd.edu

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‘We should be sympathetic toward snoozers’: Study finds unexpected effect of snoozing an alarm

To learn more about snoozing, professors and researchers from the Notre Dame department of computer science collected data from daily surveys that questioned the snoozing habits of 385 individuals. The team concluded that repeatedly snoozing alarms is linked to having a higher heart rate.

Postdoctoral researcher Stephen Mattingly said he was interested in the topic before he started collecting data.

“I was interested in how people hit the alarm multiple times in the morning. There’s very little tied to that topic in particular,” he said. 

Mattingly continued to explain the lack of information surrounding snoozing, saying that he could not find any literature on the topic.

“When I went to go consult the scientific literature, I didn’t see pretty much anything. Which means it was an open question. Right for research,” he said.

Aaron Striegel, computer science and engineering professor and program director for the computer science major, said the study was intended to be a measure of job performance using physiological data gathered over a year on white-collar professionals, but the data was inconclusive.

“If we just take a week at the end of the study to ask questions, we could actually try to quantify how often people snooze,” Striegel said. “Let’s get this data because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a really large cohort.”

When Striegel was asked to define “snoozing,” he said, “it’s where you have a primary alarm and a backup alarm, or you hit the snooze function.”

When gathering data, Mattingly noted that he was interested in stress rates.

“I was looking for evidence that the heart rate increases before you get out of bed, which is associated with the stress response,” he said.

At the conclusion of the week-long survey, researchers concluded that nearly 60% of individuals snooze. They also found average heart rates to be 3.35 beats per minute higher while snoozing.

Striegel noted that this number was higher than he originally thought.

Furthermore, Mattingly explained that he believes snoozing is tied to need.

Pointing to caffeine as an enemy of healthy sleep regulation, Mattingly said, “You’re still going to be tired when you get out of bed until you get your coffee and its other unintended consequences. So from our admittedly very first research study on the topic, it looks like people snooze at need.”

Striegel stressed the importance of not feeling guilty over those couple extra minutes in bed.

“Oftentimes, it’s kind of conflated with laziness,” Striegel said. “You shouldn’t feel guilty necessarily about snoozing unless it’s impacting your life. If you’re just snoozing and missing things, that’s much different.”

Mattingly said he was interested in how snoozing is stigmatized in modern society.

“It’s interesting how much of a stigma is tied to snoozing,” Mattingly said. “I think there might be a place for snoozing as a tool to deal with fatigue; it might be appropriate in some contexts”

Mattingly stressed the lack of resources and the need for more research to learn more about snoozing and its effects.

“We still have a lot to learn,” he said.

Redmond Bernhold

Contact Redmond at rbernho2@nd.edu

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Notre Dame partnership aims to address chip shortage

As the global semiconductor shortage continues to plague key industries, companies, governments and other organizations are searching for ways to alleviate it. 

In early August, President Joe Biden signed into law the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, with the hope of boosting domestic semiconductor production. In January, Intel announced plans for two new semiconductor factories in Ohio. And earlier this month, Notre Dame partnered with 11 midwestern universities to help bolster semiconductor research and production in the U.S.

Semiconductors, commonly referred to as chips, are most commonly silicon pieces and essential components of items ranging from smartphones and cars to computers and medical diagnostic equipment, according to electrical engineering professor Alan Seabaugh.

“It’s just everywhere you turn,” Seabaugh said.

After Intel announced its plans to build a chip plant in Ohio, Ohio State University organized a meeting with the 12 universities that now form the partnership, Seabaugh said. 

Universities included in the partnership include the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Purdue University and the University of Cincinnati. 

Seabaugh said the partnership will allow for collaboration on research and provide research and employment opportunities to students in the region, as the universities hope to address the national issue.

“When we run research groups for various topics, we might collaborate with people from all over the country, but why not collaborate more in the region?” Seabaugh said.

The U.S. accounts for just 12% of the chips produced in the world; China and Taiwan make up a large majority of the remainder.

“It’s really kind of tragic that we’ve let [U.S. chip production] get that low, because you can see from a point-of-view of keeping supply chains open, something can happen somewhere in the world and then, all of the sudden, people can’t sell their cars or complete some product that they have,” Seabaugh said.

While Seabaugh expressed alarm at the low percentage of chips produced in the U.S., business analytics professor and supply chain expert Kaitlin Wowak said there are some benefits to outsourcing a large swath of chips.

Wowak said it is unrealistic to expect the U.S. to catch up to Taiwan and China in chip production because of their massive manufacturing capacity. Additionally, she said a diverse supply base helps diversify risk in the event of occurrences, such as natural disasters, that can hinder production.

At the beginning of the pandemic, companies stopped ordering chips because of the uncertainty of their demand, Wowak said. In turn, suppliers cut their chip production. However, the pandemic increased demand for products such as laptops because of the increased use of apps like Zoom for meetings, which brought the demand for chips back up.

For this reason, manufacturers experienced a backlog of their products because they had to place orders for the chips. This backlog has continued and does not appear to have an end in sight, Wowak said.

“People would like to think that the chip shortage is hopefully going to be over soon,” Wowak said. “I’ve seen projections that it could go into 2023-2024, depending on the demand for certain items.”

Wowak said the chip shortage is obviously reflected in the car industry, which is experiencing soaring prices.

With the partnership among the universities, Seabaugh said he hopes the U.S, and especially the Midwest, can mobilize around increasing domestic production of semiconductors and begin to remedy the shortage. He expects the new Intel plant in Ohio to eventually result in the creation of around 40,000 jobs as semiconductor companies look to expand to the Midwest.

“We can really talk about having this become sort of the Silicon Valley in the ‘Silicon Heartland,’” Seabaugh said. “This is the new, new space for students to really consider having a career and raising a family.”

Seabaugh said the semiconductor industry is not only important and exciting, but also presents opportunities for students and employees in all sorts of fields.

“It’s not just electrical engineers, and not just computer scientists, but mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, physicists, chemists,” he said. “All these people qualify, but they don’t probably know about this kind of career and what it would be like to work in this space.”

Seabaugh teaches a course called “Integrated Circuit Fabrication,” in which students build a small silicon chip which plays the University fight song. The course was recently opened up to students outside of the electrical engineering program, with the goal of exposing as many students as possible to careers in the industry.

“We want to cooperate to support this onshoring of semiconductor manufacturing, which is a problem needing a solution,” he said.

Ryan Peters


Contact Ryan at rpeters5@nd.edu.