Eradicate the “forever” of “chemicals forever”
Known to scientists as PFAS (short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), these ubiquitous chemicals can persist for many years in soil and water – and in our bodies, where they have been linked to a range of diseases. . They have been found in drinking water in many parts of the United States, especially in areas near chemical plants that currently or previously manufactured them. There’s so much down there that researchers recently detected dangerous levels in rainwater.
Now, there might be a way to remove the “forever” from these chemicals. Scientists at Northwestern University have come up with a simple and inexpensive way to break down some of these molecules into benign parts. This feat, and, more realistically, others it could inspire, has the potential to play a crucial role in the massive and costly effort to eradicate these chemicals from the environment. The discovery is far from an immediate solution to the global PFAS problem. But it comes at a time when the United States is starting to invest real money in efforts to extract these contaminants from the water supply, which would create a lot of PFAS waste with nowhere to go.
Forever chemicals exist to add durability during manufacturing and enable user-friendly features such as water and grease resistance. The problem is that the carbon-fluorine bonds that confer these qualities also make these chemicals extremely stable. Getting rid of them is a massive and expensive headache. A community in North Carolina has spent about $50 million upgrading its water treatment plant to filter out PFAS each year and must pay several million additional dollars to change the filter and get rid of the chemicals it he captured.
North West Professor William Dichtel is one of many scientists working on methods to extract these chemicals from water. But one question has always lingered, he says. “What do you do with PFAS after you remove them from contaminated water? Splitting these carbon-fluorine bonds currently requires brute force – think energy-intensive measures like incineration at extreme temperatures. And even that doesn’t always break everything down.
The team at Team Northwestern has come up with a simple alternative. Some types of PFAS (those containing carboxylic acids) can be dissolved under mild conditions using only water, a widely used solvent called DMSO, and sodium hydroxide. What remains at the end is benign. The lab has also teamed up with scientists from other universities to dig deeper into how these chemicals break down. These details may not sound as exciting as an easy recipe for PFAS destruction, but they are just as important in that they help inform future research.
Such efforts will be necessary. The findings of the Northwestern team have not been proven on an industrial scale. DMSO, for example, is generally not used on an industrial scale. The reaction also only works on certain types of PFAS, so other approaches should be explored.
Progress in resolving these issues is urgently needed. Many forever chemicals could soon be removed from our water. The Biden administration’s infrastructure bill included $1 billion to address PFAS contamination as part of an overall $5 billion commitment, with a particular focus on helping disaster recovery efforts. remediation in small or disadvantaged communities.
Under this plan, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed lowering the acceptable level in drinking water to virtually zero for two older chemicals (PFOA and PFOS) and issued a health advisory for two others. Last week, the agency proposed adding PFOA and PFOS to its list of hazardous substances, a move that could put some of the cleanup costs on chemical companies.
Companies keep producing chemicals and consumers keep buying products made more convenient by them. Unfortunately, this cycle doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon. And while the Northwestern team’s discovery won’t solve global PFAS problems anytime soon, it could help clean up and inspire other inventions that bring safer drinking water closer to reality. More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
California winery cheats on climate change: Amanda LittleClimate Bill won’t halve emissions by 2030: Eduardo PorterGas is better than environmentalists admit: Matthew Yglesias
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Lisa Jarvis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering biotech, healthcare, and pharmaceuticals. Previously, she was the editor of Chemical & Engineering News.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion