Simple Remedy Provides Hope on 'Forever Chemicals'

Researchers describe novel method of breaking down PFAS safely and cheaply
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 19, 2022 11:29 AM CDT
Discovery Means 'Forever Chemicals' May Get a Death Date
In this 2018 photo, PFAS foam gathers at the Van Etten Creek dam in Oscoda Township, Mich., near Wurtsmith Air Force Base.   (Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP File)

Scientists know them as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Everyday folk know them as "forever chemicals." However you refer to them, these chemicals, resistant to liquid and heat and used in everyday products from cosmetics to paint to paper to food packaging, are toxic at certain levels and, as their nickname suggests, nearly impossible to eliminate. Their super-strong carbon and fluorine bonds keep them from breaking down naturally, meaning more and more are accumulating in the environment, including in most Americans' drinking water, reports the Guardian. Sound scary? A team of researchers may calm your fears, proposing a potential breakthrough method of disposing of PFAS that's both cheap and relatively easy.

It's a process that uses a mixture of water and dipolar aprotic solvent dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) to "defluorinate" carbon atoms at a low boil, leaving carbon and inorganic fluoride, which researchers describe as benign on their own. It was hastened with the addition of sodium hydroxide, the chemical in lye, per the New York Times. Though there are other methods of attacking PFAS, including high-temperature incineration, they all require high energy and are therefore expensive. They may also leave harmful components behind. This research, published Thursday in Science, is "exciting because of how simple—yet unrecognized—our solution is," lead author Brittany Trang, who just wrapped up a PhD in chemistry at Northwestern University, tells the BBC.

The process, expanded from research by University of Alberta chemists, only applies to a subclass of PFAS called perfluorocarboxylic acids, with chains of molecules headed by a carbon atom connected to a pair of oxygen atoms, as it causes the head to disconnect from the chain, triggering a collapse of the rest, the Times reports. But researchers are already looking at related processes that could be used on other PFAS. Even so, they caution this is not a miracle fix. The process is far from being applied as PFAS, found in rainwater around the world, would first need to be pulled from the environment. Meanwhile, more than 50,000 tons of PFAS are emitted into the atmosphere every year. The Biden administration says it’s also working to tackle the problem. (Read more discoveries stories.)

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