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Simple new method found that destroys ‘forever chemicals’

New method capitalises on ‘Achilles’ heel’ of PFAS to degrade them more easily, scientists say

Vishwam Sankaran
Friday 19 August 2022 07:37 BST
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Scientists have developed a new process that causes two major classes of harmful “forever chemicals” to break down, leaving behind only benign end products.

Researchers, including those from Northwestern University in the US, said the “simple” new technique could be a “powerful solution” for disposing of these chemicals linked to dangerous health effects in humans, livestock and the environment.

Current methods aimed at destroying these chemicals involve high temperatures and pressures, scientists said.

In the new technique, described in the journal Science on Thursday, researchers captialised on the “Achilles’ heel” of these chemicals to develop a solution potentially more practical for widespread use.

PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of chemicals used since the 1940s and are commonly found in nonstick cookware, waterproof cosmetics, firefighting foams and products that resist grease and oil.

These chemicals are not broken down in the environment and remain a persistent problem for generations to come.

Studies have found these chemicals are not broken down by bacteria, cannot be incinerated by fire and are not diluted to harmless levels by water.

Research has also suggested that when these toxic chemicals are buried, they leach into the surrounding soil.

PFAS have made their way out of consumer goods, into drinking water, and even into the blood of 97 per cent of the American population, scientists pointed out.

Although the health effects of these chemicals are not yet fully understood, previous research has indicated that exposure to PFAS is linked to decreased fertility, developmental effects in children, increased risks of various types of cancer, reduced immunity to fight infections and increased cholesterol levels.

“PFAS has become a major societal problem. Even just a tiny, tiny amount of PFAS causes negative health effects, and it does not break down,” William Dichtel from Northwestern University, who led the study, said in a statement.

“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,” Dr Dichtel said.

In the new study, scientists found that when PFAS were targeted by heating them in the solvent dimethyl sulfoxide, it “decapitated” a section of the molecule and left behind the “safest form of fluorine”.

Using computer simulations, they discovered benign products remained after the process.

Researchers could apply the new technique to successfully degrade 10 perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids (PFCAs) and perfluoroalkyl ether carboxylic acids (PFECAs), including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and one of its common replacements known as GenX – two of the most prominent PFAS compounds.

In future studies, they hope to test the effectiveness of the new strategy on other types of PFAS.

“There are other classes that don’t have the same Achilles’ heel, but each one will have its own weakness. If we can identify it, then we know how to activate it to destroy it,” Dr Dichtel said.

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