We’ve previously shared about the health concerns tied to PFAS, “forever chemicals” that are now thought to be found in the blood of up to 97% of Americans. PFAS, short for per-and-poly-fluoroalkyl substances, was developed in 1946 by DuPont and was introduced in nonstick cookware coated with Teflon. Since then, the family of fluorinated chemicals that sprang from Teflon includes thousands of nonstick, stain-repellent and waterproof compounds called. PFAS are found nearly everywhere in today’s society, with heavy use contributing to contamination of soil, water (even found in rain water), and detectable amounts found in animal’s and people’s blood.
PFAS do not break down as other chemicals do, and can remain in the body for years. PFAS don’t easily break down- not with enzymes produced by bacteria, water doesn’t dilute them, and while previously used as a method to break down PFAS, we now know that burning PFAS may actually only further contaminate the areas surrounding burn facilities and has been temporarily halted by government agencies.
Breakthrough disposal method found during pandemic
The most recent research, conducted at Northwestern University, was co-authored by Dr. William Dichtel, a chemist. After having read of a study carried out at the University of Alberta, where researchers were able to pry the head of carbon-oxygen off the chemical chain of other compounds, he suggested to his graduate students to try the same with PFAS. Dr. Brittany Trang, mirrored the study conducted in Alberta, and used a common solvent called dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) specifically observing its impact on a certain class of PFAS called “carboxylic” because they are capped with carbon dioxide at one end of the chemical chain.
Bringing the dimethyl sulfoxide to a boil, it was able to alter the electric field around the PFAS molecule, knocking off its head. The bonds between the carbon atoms and the flourine atoms weakened as well. The research had just started in March 2020 when the pandemic came roaring in, shutting down the research labs and putting off further research for several months. Upon her return, Dr. Trang continued researching and found that using sodium hydroxide, found in lye, could speed up the process to break down the PFAS between 175-250 degrees in a few days.
The result? The remaining molecules “are in many cases found in nature already and do not pose serious health concerns,” Dichtel said.
Other disposal methods have included incineration
The new method is in contrast to how PFAS had been addressed before. The DoD has known since the 1970s that PFAS caused health issues, with studies conducted by the DoD on the impact of aqueous film-forming foam, (AFFF) used on military bases and ships caused health concerns. You can view scans of actual documents since released by the DoD, here, which show the toxicity of the chemical and eventual shifts towards better managing its disposal.
However, a Bennington College analysis showed that between 2016-2020, the DoD found a loophole in legislation to allow it to dispose of the foam waste along with other chemicals using a process called “fuel blending”. Just as it sounds, the foam was mixed with other hazardous waste and commercial fuel and was sent to incinerator facilities, industrial furnaces, and cement kilns across the country. There, the material was brought to temps over 750 degrees Fahrenheit in an attempt to dispose of it, along with the other fuels in the blend. The consequence of those high-temperature burns have since been shown to impact the areas surrounding the burn facilities.
High temperature disposal increases PFAS risks
Extensive research has revealed, and the Enivronmental Working Group (EWG) scientists have warned that attempts to “destroy PFAS through incineration could pollute frontline communities near or downwind of these facilities. The process can further cycle PFAS contamination back into these areas and the environment when PFAS are deposited in soil and drinking water supplies in downwind communities, increasing their exposure.”
Incinerator facilities can be found nationwide, adding to the concern when we are already highly exposed to PFAS through the products we use, our water, and soil in which our food is grown. These faculties are accelerating our exposure to PFAS and consequent health risks. For example, in April 2020, researchers from Bennington College, in Vermont, found elevated levels of PFAS in soil and water samples taken from neighborhoods near the Norlite incinerator in Cohoes, N.Y., which received AFFF from the DOD until 2020.
The increased risk from additional environmental contamination can’t be ignored. In mid-June 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] put out a new advisory warning that even tiny amounts of some of PFAS chemicals found in drinking water may pose risks. This release supports previous studies that suggested even small doses of PFAS can be linked to cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, and other diseases.
It is the release of such findings that is prompting Congressional leaders to advance legislation to address the DOD’s use of incineration to dispose of PFAS waste, including through the use of fuel blending, to ensure that the DOD can no longer exploit this loophole.
The breakthrough method of using two commonly found compounds to break down PFAS still has a way to go as it undergoes additional research. It will likely take several years for scientists to develop a solution that can be rolled out in these communities, said Christopher Sales, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Drexel University who was not involved in the new study. Sales shares that despite the prolonged timeline, other methods to destroy PFAS haven’t been able to destroy them at the low levels of the new method.
Sources share that beyond the research into the effectiveness of how the process impacts a variety of PFAS, another consideration is how to roll it out to communities on a large scale. Despite these hurdles, the new research is promising and its seemingly simple method and components set the stage for a shift in addressing PFAS and their impact on our health.
For more information about PFAS, you can read our previous article, here: