Study reveals how to remove some of the worst chemicals ‘forever’ from the environment

A growing stack Studies now suggest that PFAS chemicals, known to scientists as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances and to everyone else as “forever chemicals,” are wreaking havoc on both human health and surrounding ecosystems. This is a big problem as experts have not figured out how to get rid of them yet.

But we may have gotten a little closer to a solution. Scientists have discovered a promising new approach to degrading a certain type of PFAS through a simple and cheap chemical reaction, according to a new study published in Sciences. These are two relatively safe and widely used solvents: sodium hydroxide or lye, which is used to make soap, and dimethyl sulfoxide, which is used to treat bladder pain syndrome.

PFAS have found their way into the rain even in the most remote parts of the world and now live in our drinking water, which can lead to chronic health problems.making_ultimate/Moment/Getty Images

What’s new – The study addresses an important gap in PFAS treatment methods. Most current techniques, such as activated carbon treatment and reverse osmosis, are quite expensive and energy intensive. These require heat of up to 400 degrees Celsius and a lot of pressure.

“Even a small amount of PFAS causes negative health effects and does not break down. We can’t just wait for this problem to be fixed,” William Dichtel, lead author of the study and a chemist at Northwestern University, said in a news release. “We wanted to use chemistry to tackle this problem and create a solution that the world can use. It’s exciting because of how simple, yet unrecognized, our solution is.”

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Here is the background – PFAS are a group of more than 12,000 chemicals that are used in everyday objects and cosmetics, often to make them waterproof or non-stick: think waterproof mascara or raincoats, non-stick Teflon pans, and take-out boxes.

Although they have been useful for the last eighty years, they are almost indestructible once they leak into the environment. In fact, PFAS have contaminated everything from drinking water to livestock and produce, and have even found their way onto your pizza.

Overall, about 50,000 tons of PFAS are released into the atmosphere annually. These chemicals have even seeped into rain in Tibet and Antarctica, according to research published earlier this month. They are also found in the water supply of more than 200 million Americans.

Nonstick pans seemed like a great idea, until scientists realized that they send PFAS into our environment and endanger human health.Ales Munt / 500px/500px Plus/Getty Images

Chronic exposure can harm human and animal health: Research has linked PFAS to thyroid disease, cancer, and immune system disorders. They are so dangerous that the US Environmental Protection Agency has ruled that PFAS should never be found in drinking water, even in the smallest amounts.

That’s why experts have racked their brains for ways to break down and remove these pesky chemicals. Hemp plants, which can absorb contaminants from the soil, may prove useful in the future. But it is not yet clear how useful this technique, along with several others currently under development, is on a large scale.

What did you do – In the new study, chemists from the University of California, Los Angeles and Northwestern University found a relatively simple solution to breaking down one of the largest groups of these indestructible chemicals: 10 of the perfluorocarboxylic acids in the PFAS class.

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By heating water to just 176 to 248 degrees Fahrenheit and adding dimethyl sulfoxide and sodium hydroxide, PFASs are rendered harmless in a matter of hours.

Dichtel likens the reaction to a guillotine that cuts off the molecular “head” of the chemical: some types of PFAS molecules have heads made of a carbon atom connected to a pair of oxygen atoms, which is what bites the chemical reaction, pulling it apart. of its chemical “glue”.

Sodium hydroxide, seen here, and dimethyl sulfoxide can combine to break down toxic molecules into some forms of PFAS.Shutterstock

Afterward, only inorganic fluoride ion particles remain. These are the safest form of fluoride, and the particles are often added to drinking water for healthy teeth. It also leaves harmless carbon dioxide and formic acid, which can already be found in nature.

The researchers also performed quantum mechanical simulations to better understand the chemical reaction and its possible outcomes (quantum mechanics is the mathematical method used to simulate chemistry).

The Dichtel team concluded that perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) can be completely degraded and that it is likely that large quantities of water can be treated simultaneously.

Why does it matter? More research will reveal how this might work on a broader scale, Dichtel says, but it could eventually apply to most PFAS with similar compositions in water treatment plants.

“Our work addressed one of the largest classes of PFAS, including many of concern to us,” Dichtel said. “There are other classes that don’t have the same Achilles heel, but each will have their own weakness. If we can identify it, then we will know how to activate it to destroy it.”

Nail polish is just one of many everyday products that contain PFAS, a group of more than 12,000 chemicals that can be toxic to people and animals. To prevent future contamination of our water, food, and air, scientists say we must stop making PFAS-laden items.Ekaterina Fedotova / 500px/500Px Plus/Getty Images

Whats Next – This method shows great potential, but since it currently only works on a few types of PFAS in certain settings, it doesn’t necessarily “remove” PFAS or “fix” the problem, says Arlene Blum, a biophysical chemist and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute who did not participate in the study.

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Since the environment is already riddled with PFAS contamination, the process would have to be applied to oceans, lakes, and rivers to truly be the game-changer that researchers tout, and “this is ridiculous thinking,” says Terrence Collins, an unaffiliated researcher. researcher and director of the Institute of Green Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University.

The only way to prevent further contamination: we need to stop PFAS production once and for all. “Using language that suggests you have a powerful solution when you don’t is like giving manufacturers a get out of jail free card when our civilization has to stop making chemicals forever, period,” he says.

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