Here’s your good news for the day: so-called “forever chemicals,” or PFAS, cancer-causing pollutants found in everything from drinking water to polar bears, may not be forever.
A newly released study by researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles and Northwestern University provided a model of how to destroy per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — PFAS — using fairly low-tech practices. These chemicals are dubbed “forever chemicals” as they do not break down in the environment. PFAS has been used in a variety of industrial and commercial applications, from kid’s toys to fast food wrappers, for decades, and removing it from the environment has become imperative. Experts believe that PFAS exist in the bloodstreams of people and animals around the world. And research is mounting about the links between the chemicals and such maladies as infertility, high blood pressure in mid-life women, stunted developmental growth, as well as kidney, liver, and testicular cancers.
The study suggests that heating the chemicals to around 176 to 248 degrees Farenheitand adding the commercially used solvent dimethyl sulfoxide and sodium hydroxide, or lye, will “behead” the chemical compound and leave behind non-toxic chemicals fluoride, carbon dioxide, and formic acid.
Researchers have attempted various methods to destroy PFAS in the past, such as using chemicals found in makeup to erode almost the entire compound in as little as four hours. A 2020 study from Philadelphia’s Drexel University was able to blast the compound with plasma and kill upwards of 90 percent of it. The UCLA and Northwestern study was successful in breaking down the chemicals with heat and solvents, but it didn’t work on every strain.
PFAS is a group of over 9,000 synthetic chemicals and are everywhere. They have been discovered in every single state, with a heavy concentration of water contamination in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio, and California. Military bases and airports are recurring contamination sites as PFAS has been found in firefighting foam, which is commonly used in these facilities. The compounds have been found in beef from Michigan, a byproduct of the state’s contaminated waterways and agricultural fields. Even rainwater isn’t safe from PFAS.
Getting a grip on the chemicals has proven difficult, even with new drinking water guidance released by the Environmental Protection Agency this year. States have taken battles to the courthouse and statehouse to tackle their contaminated water and soil. This summer, Colorado released what some called the nation’s “most comprehensive” state law to address the forever chemicals. Wisconsin’s governor and attorney general filed a lawsuit in July against chemical producers to “ensure that the companies that are responsible — and not Wisconsin taxpayers — will pay to clean it up.” Vermont’s governor followed a similar path and recently signed legislation that would allow the state to sue PFAS manufacturers and let impacted residents place financial responsibility on the companies responsible. Addressing the contamination is both a complex legal and scientific problem, but new emerging methods give a glimmer of hope in tackling pollutants that have seeped into every corner of the country.
“Anyone working on PFASs degradation can look at this and maybe have a better understanding of what might be going on,” study co-author William Dichtel told Scientific American.“Even though I don’t pretend that this is the final solution, it really is why I do science — so that I can have a positive impact on the world.”