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"Epic Swim Maui": First expedition swim in the Pacific has started

The best open water swimmers from six continents will be circumnavigating the Hawaiian island of Maui over the next three weeks. They will be collecting water samples for the Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon. These samples will be analyzed at Hereon for the presence of PFAS. The event is part of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

At the "Epic Swim Maui", the athletes not only achieve top physical performances. Together with representatives from indigenous communities, science, politics, industry and the media, they also draw attention to the ecologically critical state of the oceans and try to find solutions.

swimmers in the water

Caves and waves, cliffs and currents: The swimmers face many challenges on their route around the island of Maui. Photo: Epic Swim Maui

The Institute for Coastal Environmental Chemistry at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon has been researching the so-called "Forever chemicals" PFAS for over 20 years and has published more than 80 scientific papers on the occurrence, distribution, global transport and fate of this class of substances.

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a group of synthetic chemicals that are widely used in consumer goods and industrial and medical applications due to their water-, grease- and dirt-repellent properties and high stability. They can be found in numerous products such as water-repellent clothing, non-stick cookware, food packaging and fire-fighting foams. PFAS are extremely durable and degrade very slowly in the environment and in the human body, which is why they are often referred to as "forever chemicals".

This persistence, together with their mobility, leads to the worldwide distribution of the substances, which is associated with ecological problems and potential health risks, including impairment of the immune system, hormone balance and reproductive capacity. Due to their stability and toxicity, PFAS are the focus of regulation and research worldwide in order to minimize their impact and develop alternatives.

Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon in search of PFAS in the Pacific Ocean

The Scientist Hanna Joerss in her lab at Hereon.

Scientist Hanna Joerss analyzes the water samples in her lab at Hereon. Photo: Hereon

"We have developed very sensitive analytical methods with which we can detect a broad spectrum of PFAS in extremely low concentrations, which is not possible with standard methods," explains Dr. Hanna Joerss, Deputy Head of Department at the Hereon Institute for Coastal Environmental Chemistry. She and her department have already been able to detect PFAS at various concentrations in remote regions such as the Arctic, the Antarctic and the Himalayas.

In order to investigate the Pacific with her team and improve the data situation there, the swimmers at the event will take samples for the Geesthacht researchers at various locations and send them to Hereon for analysis.

It is interesting for scientists that the course of the race also leads through coastal and marine areas that are virtually unaffected by the land masses of the island and the civilization of Hawaii due to currents.

"PFAS are transported globally over thousands of kilometers via the atmosphere and ocean currents. The extent to which they also reach the Pacific around Hawaii is one of the central questions for us in this expedition swim," says Hanna Joerss, explaining her motivation for taking part in this special project.

In addition to sampling remote coastal areas of the island, the study's research design also focuses on potential sources on Maui in heavily used coastal areas. Ultimately, the information on global transport pathways of PFAS will be used to feed computer models, which will provide decision-making support on how to deal with the special chemicals internationally in terms of sustainability.

Large amounts of data enable understanding of the Pacific

Coast of Maui

The route around Maui is over 250 kilometers long. Photo: Epic Swim Maui

In order to investigate and understand the complex processes in the ocean, it is essential to collect as much oceanographic data as possible. This includes parameters such as temperature, salinity, conductivity, oxygen and pH value, which could support the PFAS-study.

The Schleswig-Holstein-based company Sun & Sea Technology also supports and facilitates the scientific investigations and data collection during the event as a partner and provides state-of-the-art measuring equipment. Since 1998, the company has been developing and manufacturing high-precision multi-parameter probes equipped with various sensors for use in seas, lakes and rivers. These probes can combine up to 11 sensors and can be used in water depths of up to 11,000 m.

"We are supporting the Epic Swim Maui because we are inspired by the superhuman performances of the athletes and because there is no data available for water analysis in the areas where they are swimming. We are proud to be part of it and to help write a piece of history," explains Heinz Schelwat, founder and Managing Director of Sun & Sea Technology.

More information



Dr. Hanna Joerss


Institute of Coastal Environmental Chemistry

Phone: +49 (0)4152 87-2353

E-mail contact

Dr. Torsten Fischer

Head of Communications and Media

Innovation & Transfer

Phone: +49 (0)4152 87-1677

E-mail contact