Aftermath Of Tanker Fire At I-95 In Bensalem
Absorbent booms are used to contain aqueous film forming foams (AFFF) from spilling into the surface water in Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania, on February 7th, 2019. AFFF used in fighting fires can contain PFAS.
Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Our drinking water is one of many places where "forever chemicals" shouldn't be.

There's excitement about a new way to smash these molecule to bits so they don't cause environmental and health problems In the journal Science, it is described. It is simple for such a tough substance, even though there are some caveat to the process.

It goes against everything I have known for the last decade. One of the authors of an accompanying perspective on the new research in Science is an environmental chemist who works at York University.

A new way to smash these molecules to bits

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are also known as PFCs. They have gone into everything from fast food wrappers to non-stick pans, even though they were once thought to be harmless. Unlike other types of PFAS, they don't break down easily in the environment or in high temperatures. Since the 1950s, PFAS has been sought-after for a wide range of applications, from making things water and stain resistant to being used in a fire suppression system.

The strong bond between carbon and fluorine within the chemical structure of all the different kinds of the chemical gives PFAS their strength. The "forever" is put in "forever chemicals." Researchers are trying to find a way to break the bonds. It takes a lot of effort to incinerate them at high temperatures.

The new research found a way to use a small amount of energy to break bonds. The authors of the new study found that by adding a commonly used industrial solvent and sodium hydroxide to a certain class of PFAS, the molecule start to fall apart. boiling a pot of water takes less energy than that.

The process breaks down the PFAS into six different byproducts that experts tell The Verge are relatively benign. Five of those are found in nature and might even be ingredients you’d see in toothpaste and face wash. The sixth leftover product, trifluoroacetate, still has those pesky carbon-fluorine bonds, but it’s not as risky as PFAS. Ultimately, all those broken down pieces could be turned into rock or otherwise disposed of safely — unlike PFAS, which has the tendency to leak out of landfills and potentially even persist in the air after being incinerated.

Chemicals easily found their way from food packaging, Teflon pans, dental floss, and water to human bodies. In the 1990s, more than 98% of Americans were tested and found to have PFCs. In water sources, fish, and soil it has been found. The pollution is often found in low levels, but it is more concentrated in areas around military bases and factories that use the toxic substances.

“This is a mistake that we’ve made that will linger for generations”

Despite the CDC's claim that there is widespread chemical exposure, research on what that exposure does to human health and environment has been lagging. Efforts have been made to regulate the use offorever chemicals. After years of environmental and health advocates pushing for more regulation, the EPA issued health advisories on how much PFAS is safe to drink. The advisories aren't binding on federal, state, and local officials. They triggered a legal challenge by industry.

Scientists are still trying to figure out how widespread the chemicals are. There are a number of health risks associated with high levels of PFAS, including a higher risk of cancer, increased cholesterol, and reproductive health risks. Some companies have turned away from using the most common types of PFAS because of concerns about replacement chemicals called GenX.

The chemicals we have released will stay with us for a long time. Rolf Halden is the director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University. It's not too late to think about how we capture and destroy these chemicals.

There is still a long way to go from research to real-world action despite the new research published in Science today. The forever chemicals need to be removed from water, soil, or other places before they can go through a destructive chemical reaction.

There’s still a long way to go from research to real-world action

This process for degrading chemicals doesn't work for every type of PFAS. We are about to get into a lot of annoyingly similar abbreviations. The perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids are attacked by the new process. One of the most common types of forever chemical is perfluorooctanoic acid. This new research could apply to many other types of forever chemicals that break down into PFCA over time.

The research gives other scientists a better understanding of how to destroy PFAS, and that's one of the neat things about it. If you smashed a Lego, you could do a structural analysis of how it fell apart.

We can't ask for a single paper to solve all the problems. JinyongLiu, an assistant professor at the University of California, said that the study will be helpful to teach or guide so many of the researchers to think about how they can further improve their system.

A professor at the Colorado School of Mines says that the new study adds another tool to the arsenal that is able to destroy PFAS. It is possible that an entire armory of methods will have to be used to clean up the mess.