Thanks to an innovative new approach that can safely break down some “forever chemicals,” the “forever” part of the nightmare may soon not be a thing.
It turns out that many per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as forever chemicals, are no match for two low-cost compounds that scientists recently discovered can safely destroy them. These compounds can eliminate the toxic substances without releasing harmful byproducts into the environment.
According to a new study published on Thursday (August 18) in the peer-reviewed journal Science, chemists found that they could break down the harmful PFAS and turn them harmless by boiling them with two compounds: sodium hydroxide, which is a chemical that can be found in lye, and the solvent dimethyl sulfoxide.
The group of scientists hope that they may someday be able to apply their results to the elimination of PFAS on a more widespread basis.
Existing methods for removing these toxic chemicals can be rather harsh, such as incineration; they also need a significant amount of energy to carry out and risk disseminating PFAS across communities.
Forever chemicals have been linked to cancer and are present in most people, according to The New York Times. PFAS are found in everything from food wrappers to tap water to dental floss.
They are found in the water that comes out of our kitchen faucets and showers, the Earth’s environment that surrounds us, the food that we consume on a daily basis, and much more—PFAS are literally everywhere, and they are drowning us in toxicity.
They’re even found in rainwater across the world.
“The reality of the situation is that there is really no magic solution right now other than undertaking the hard work of recognizing just how difficult the problem is and turning off the tap so that we don’t make it any worse,” Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at Environmental Working Group, told the New York Times.
In order to simplify living, these compounds were first created in the 1940s, resulting in non-stick cookware, waterproof clothes, and stain-resistant furniture.
However, the same complex chemistry that enabled these achievements also made it extremely hard for these substances to naturally decay once they had been used.
Even worse, research conducted in the years after the introduction of PFAS into our daily lives has revealed that even brief exposure to the chemicals can have harmful consequences on human health, including thyroid problems, a weakened immune system, and a number of cancers.
Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern University and lead author on the study, William Dichtel, said during a news conference that held on Tuesday (August 16) to discuss the findings that one of the most intriguing aspects of this discovery is that the reaction does not leave behind any compounds that are toxic.
“We were pleased to find a relatively low temperature, low energy input method where the one specific portion of these molecules falls off and sets off a cascade of reactions that ultimately breaks these PFAS compounds down to relatively benign products including fluoride ions… that are in many cases found in nature already and do not pose serious health concerns,” Dichtel said.
Specifically, Dichtel and his team focused on a class of PFAS known as PFCAs. This particular form is the end product of the degradation process that occurs with many other PFAS throughout time.
The majority of the experiments in the new paper were conducted by Brittany Trang, who is also the first author. Trang said at the press conference that she had to first investigate these substances using novel methods in order to comprehend how they were broken down.
“Most synthetic organic chemists are taking two molecules and squishing them together to make one big molecule, like taking two Legos and putting them together to make one larger thing,” Trang told VICE. “But instead, what we were doing was smashing the Legos to bits and looking at what was left to figure out how it fell apart.”
Colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles conducted experiments and computer analyses that led to the discovery that the PFCAs’ chemical breakdown was initiated by the decarboxylation of acids groups when they were subjected to the common solvent DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide).
Additionally, they discovered that the secondary solvent sodium hydroxide, usually known as lye, assisted in the completion of the process by dissolving the secondary compounds into harmless organic molecules.
However, Ditchel said they are still trying to figure out whether additional PFAS would degrade in a manner similar to that described above. It is currently unknown.
“It feels very meaningful to work on such an important problem that faces society,” Dichtel explained. “Even though I don’t pretend that this is the final solution, it is why I do science—to have a positive impact on the world.”
The team’s new strategy, unfortunately, is not yet ready for use against PFAS worldwide.
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