Scientists have found a way to destroy ‘forever chemicals’ PFAS for good. PFAS is a group of man-made chemicals used to make consumer goods. It can stay in the environment forever, including in the air, water and soil.
That is why they are sometimes called “forever chemicals.”
The chemicals have been linked to a range of adverse health effects. This includes reduced birth weight, elevated cholesterol levels, thyroid disorders, and an increased risk of several malignancies.
According to the findings of a study that was released earlier this month, being exposed to high levels of PFOS, which is a type of PFAS that was formerly utilized to make items such as clothing and food packaging resistant to stains, grease, and water, was associated with an increased risk of developing liver cancer. One of its related chemicals, PFOA, has been linked to a higher risk of kidney cancer.
Therefore, for many years, researchers have been looking for strategies to destroy PFAS. This is an abbreviation that stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds.
On Thursday, researchers at Northwestern University published a study showing that PFAS can be destroyed using two relatively harmless chemicals. These chemicals are sodium hydroxide, also known as lye. This is a chemical that is used to make soap. Also, dimethyl sulfoxide, which is a chemical that is approved as a medication for bladder pain syndrome.
Both of these chemicals were found to be effective in destroying PFAS.
In the past, the only method that was proven to be effective in destroying PFAS was to place the particles in an incinerator. Then they heat them to extremely high temperatures, sometimes reaching more than 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the process uses a lot of energy, which may still cause dangerous substances to be released into the air.
Scientists have found a way to destroy ‘forever chemicals’ PFAS for good
The new approach seems to be less dangerous and more efficient with respect to energy use. The researchers at Northwestern University mixed PFAS molecules with a solution consisting of lye and dimethyl sulfoxide. After that, they then heated the mixture to temperatures that reached up to 248 degrees Fahrenheit. Fluoride ions and other non-hazardous byproducts were produced when the compounds broke down.
William Dichtel, a professor of chemistry at Northwestern University and one of the study’s co-authors. “One specific portion of these molecules falls off. Also, it sets off a cascade of reactions that ultimately breaks these PFAS compounds down to relatively benign products.”
Because of the strong carbon-fluorine linkages that PFAS possess, it is extremely difficult to eradicate them. Brittany Trang, another co-author, said that separating the molecules was like breaking a Lego block into its parts.
At this time, PFAS can be removed from water by filtration. However, they still need to be destroyed in some way. Even if the chemicals are thrown away in an incinerator or deposited in a landfill, they still have the potential to damage the environment.
Trang stated that the present method that people use to try to get rid of firefighting foams that contain PFAS is to burn them in an incinerator.
However, there is information that shows that these incinerators really only blow the PFAS of the town. That is, where the incinerator is located. Therefore, it is necessary to find a strategy to get rid of PFAS. That is, in a way that does not continue to contaminate the environment.
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Development of PFAS
PFASs were first developed in the 1930s and began to be utilized in the 1940s and 1950s. This is for the purpose of producing nonstick and waterproof coatings for consumer products. Since then, the chemicals have been found in many things that people use every day. That is, things like carpets, kitchenware and personal care products.
Since the middle of the 2000s, PFOA and PFOS have essentially been phased out of the manufacture of chemicals and products in the United States.
However, in their place has emerged a new class of PFAS compounds known as GenX. However, the older chemicals can still be found in the environment, even in the water that people drink.
In June, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published new guidelines for the acceptable quantities of PFAS that can be found in drinking water. According to the FDA, PFOA levels that are higher than 0.004 parts per trillion can be dangerous, while PFOS levels that are higher than 0.02 parts per trillion can be detrimental. In addition, the limit for GenX was set at 10 parts per trillion by the EPA.
In a news statement issued at the time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledged the possibility that “some detrimental health impacts may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero and beyond the EPA’s capacity to detect.”
The PFAS molecules were broken apart by the Northwestern researchers in greater quantities than the EPA cautions about. Nevertheless, the researchers believe that the technique may also be able to remove PFAS from water in lower amounts.
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Removing PFAS from drinking water
According to Dichtel, even if the new technique proved successful in degrading PFOA and GenX chemicals, it is not possible to eliminate PFOS using the same approach. Therefore, the researchers are investigating many additional techniques for doing that.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a research and advocacy organization focused on toxic chemicals, monitors pollutants in drinking water. They estimated in June that 2,000 communities in the United States had levels of PFAS in their drinking water that were above the EPA’s new limits. EWG is concerned about the presence of toxic chemicals in drinking water.
Christopher Sales, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Drexel University who was not involved in the new study, said that it will likely take several years for scientists to develop a solution that can be rolled out in these communities. The findings of the new study were published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
From what he said, it sounds like “a lot of the methods used to get rid of [PFAS] haven’t been shown to kill it at those very small amounts.”
If the new strategy were to be implemented in water treatment on a large scale, it is quite likely that the water would have to be transported from the treatment plant to a place that was located off-site. At that spot, the PFAS could be taken out and then put through the necessary mix of lye and dimethyl sulfoxide.
According to Sales, the most important question is whether or not this procedure might be performed on a larger scale. According to him, several researchers are looking into ways to remove PFAS at lower temperatures, maybe even at room temperature.
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