It’s possible that a group of researchers has discovered a cheap and effective strategy for getting rid of “forever chemicals.” Many common household items, such as Teflon pans and dental floss, contain PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. There are currently over 12,000 such substances in use, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. One thing they all have in common is a carbon-fluorine backbone, one of the strongest bonds in organic chemistry. It’s the reason why PFAS-treated pots and pans don’t stick to food. This property, however, also makes some of these substances dangerous to humans.
The molecular stability of PFAS ensures that they persist in the environment for many generations. Researchers have found that chronic exposure to them raises the risk of certain cancers, lowers the immune system, and has negative effects on children’s growth and development. Scientists have been trying to break the carbon-fluorine bond that gives PFAS their durability for years, but success may finally be in sight.
Sodium hydroxide (lye’s active ingredient) and dimethyl sulfoxide (a common organic solvent) were found to be effective at breaking down a large subgroup of PFAS known as perfluoro carboxylic acids (PFCAs) in a study published Thursday in the journal Science by chemists from UCLA, Northwestern University, and China. The PFAS molecules’ bonds were broken when lead author Brittany Trang heated the mixture to between 175 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit (about 79 to 121 degrees Celsius). Any fluorine byproducts can be neutralized after being exposed to the mixture for a few days. NaOH contributes to the potency of the mixture. After the dimethyl sulfoxide softens the PFAS molecules, it bonds with them and speeds up their breakdown.
Co-author and physics professor William Dichtel told The New York Times that there is still much to do before the solution is applicable beyond the laboratory. Also, the scale of the issue is enormous. Scientists predicted in February that humans release roughly 50,000 metric tons of PFAS chemicals annually into the environment. Another recent study confirmed that these substances are present in rainwater everywhere on Earth, making it unsafe to drink. Trang’s discovery, however, has excited scientists for good reason; it may lead to the development of additional effective strategies for eliminating PFAS.
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