The approach developed by researchers is easier and cheaper to break down than the methods currently used. These chemicals have been linked to health problems and the work shows how they fall apart.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are used in a wide range of products. The term 'forever chemicals' is used because they don't break down under typical environmental conditions. A study done in 2015 found that 97 percent of Americans have at least one PFAS in their blood.

The chemicals were designed to be stable, but once they get into the environment, it's a flaw.

It is possible to remove the chemicals from the water. The surrounding environment is at risk of being contaminated due to the buried PFASs.

Harsh treatments

Incinerating products containing PFASs can lead to the spread of these compounds into the environment. She says there is a need for a method to get rid of the pollutants.

One of the largest groups of PFASs can be broken down using inexpensive reagents and a temperature of about 100C.

Joudan said she was excited about the approach. I have never seen a degradation mechanism where I thought it could make a difference.

Carbon-fluorine bonds are among nature's strongest chemical bonds. Instead of trying to break the bond, the group of oxygen atoms was targeted. By heating the compounds in a solvent called DMSO and a common reagent found in cleaners and soaps, the researchers were able to knock off the oxygen-filled group. The cascade of reactions resulted in harmless products.

Waste products

The team degraded 10 PFASs using this approach.

Computational analyses suggested that the class of PFASs falls apart at different times rather than at the same time. The forever-chemicals problem could be solved by understanding the mechanisms through which pollutants break down.

Scientists have found more than 12,000 PFASs. The degradation approach works on PFOA and related chemicals, but not on PFOS, which is potentially toxic and no longer on the market in many countries. Ian Ross, leader of consulting on PFOA and PFOS at Tetra Tech, says that existing methods can degrade PFOA and PFOS.

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Ross wonders if using DMSO as a solvent in waste treatment will find real-world applications. If you want to dispose of the DMSO in bulk, you have to pay a lot of money.

The researchers hope that the study will lead to the development of their own approaches. According to co-author William Dichtel, anyone working on PFASs degradation can look at this and possibly have a better understanding of what is happening. I do science because I want to have a positive impact on the world.

The article was published on August 18th, 2022.