“Permanent chemicals” used in everyday items like non-stick pans have long been linked to serious health problems, and now scientists say they’ve found a way to combat them.
Chemists in the United States and China said Thursday they had finally come up with an innovative way to break down these polluting compounds, known as PFAS, using relatively low temperatures and common reagents.
Their findings were published in Science and potentially offer a solution to the source of ongoing harm to the environment, livestock and humans.
“That’s really why I study science, so that I can have a positive impact on the world”The study’s lead author, William Dichtel of Northwestern University, told reporters at a press conference.
PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, were first developed in the 1940s They are now found in a variety of products, including nonstick pans, waterproof textiles, and firefighting foams.
Over time, pollutants spread and accumulated in the environment entering the air, soil, groundwater, lakes and rivers as a result of industrial processes and degradation in landfills.
A study published last week by scientists at Stockholm University found that rainwater across the planet is unsafe to drink due to PFAS contamination.
Chronic exposure – even at low levels – has been linked to liver damage, high cholesterol, poor immune responses, low birth weight, and various types of cancer.
Although PFAS chemicals can be filtered out of the water, there are few solutions to get rid of them once they are removed.
10 less, thousands remain
Current methods of destroying PFAS require extensive treatments, such as burning at extremely high temperatures or ultrasonic irradiation.
The indestructibility of PFAS comes from carbon-fluoride bonds, one of the strongest types of bonds in organic chemistry.
Fluorine is the most electronegative element and collects electrons, while carbon seeks to share them. PFAS molecules contain long chains of these bonds, but the researchers found a weak point.
At one end of the molecule are oxygen atoms that can be attacked with a common solvent and reagent at temperatures from 80 to 120 °C, thus cutting off the head of the molecular group and leaving a reactive tail.
The second part of the study involved using powerful computational methods to map the quantum mechanics behind the chemical reactions the team conducted to destroy molecules.
“Once this happens, previously unrecognized pathways are accessed that cause the entire molecule to disintegrate in a complex series of reactions.”Which makes the end products ultimately benign, Dichtel said.
The new action could eventually lead to further improvements to the method of destruction.
The current study focused on 10 PFAS chemicals, including a contaminant called GenX, which, for example, polluted the Cape Fear River in North Carolina.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as the US Environmental Protection Agency has identified more than 12,000 chemicals from PFAS.
“There are other classes that don’t have the same Achilles heel, but each have their own weaknesses. If we can identify it, we will learn how to activate it to destroy it.”Dichtel stressed.