Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, aka PFAS, are often referred to as “forever chemicals,” based upon the scientific notion that these toxic substances will never break down in nature. However, as part of a new study, a group of scientists discovered a new method that can supposedly remove PFAS from various natural places, thereby destroying forever chemicals.
This is a major breakthrough, and holds the potential to make the world a safer place, reduce the rates of various serious health conditions that are linked to PFAS exposure, and more. Here’s what we know about the new research so far.
Forever chemicals, aka PFAS, are able to break down in this scientific process.
A new study by Northwestern University chemists, published in the journal Science on Aug. 18, details a process that breaks down two major classes of PFAS compounds, resulting in a benign end product.
In their research, the authors discovered a potential weak spot in carboxylic acid–containing PFAS; from there, they conducted decarboxylation (the removal of carboxyl) in solvents. Specifically, the researchers mixed PFAS molecules with two reagents — dimethyl sulfoxide and sodium hydroxide — at a low boil; after just a few hours, they found that the perfluoroalkylcarbanions had broken down, according to The New York Times and Phys.
"That triggered all these reactions, and it started spitting out fluorine atoms from these compounds to form fluoride, which is the safest form of fluorine," study co-author William Dichtel stated, according to Phys. "Although carbon-fluorine bonds are super strong, that charged head group is the Achilles' heel."
Interestingly, the two reagents used are inexpensive, increasing the likelihood that this method could be applied to PFAS in nature; for example, this process could potentially be applied to the soil and water, and chemically remove PFAS. In their conclusion, the authors note that their findings could help researchers develop other PFAS degradation processes, which would be incredible.
"PFAS has become a major societal problem," Dichtel added. Even just a tiny, tiny amount of PFAS causes negative health effects, and it does not break down. We can't just wait out this problem. We wanted to use chemistry to address this problem and create a solution that the world can use. It's exciting because of how simple — yet unrecognized — our solution is."
What are PFAS? They have been linked to a number of health issues.
PFAS are a group of more than 9,000 compounds with a chemical makeup that scientists believe prevents them from safely degrading in the environment, meaning they essentially last in nature “forever” — though the new study challenges that.
In June 2022, the EPA declared that certain PFAS are not safe to consume at any level. However, the compound is still found pretty much everywhere these days, including kindergarten classrooms, the air, carpets, breast milk, rainwater, anti-fog glasses sprays, food packaging (and therefore food), makeup, non-stick cookware, the soil, drinking water, and more.
Peer-reviewed scientific studies have linked excessive PFAS exposure to a variety of adverse health conditions, such as decreased fertility, developmental delays in children, an increased chance of certain cancers, hormone disruption, and more, as per the EPA.
Though there are plenty of ways consumers can avoid PFAS exposure, there is no known method of removing already-existing PFAS. If the method used in this new study is able to be scaled up and applied to contaminated soil and water, the possibilities would be endless.