Can ‘Forever Chemicals’ be broken down?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a widely used chemical group used in the manufacturing process of everyday items such as non-stick pans, plastics, water and stain resistant clothing, and food packaging. They have strong chemical bonds that are impervious to breaking down by known biological or chemical processes, so they are often described as ‘forever chemicals’. They are found in our water and run off into soil, enabling them to enter the food chain.
So it’s really encouraging news to hear that researchers have found a way of weakening those chemical bonds. A team led by Brittany Trang at Northwestern University have discovered a potential weak spot in the chemical chain of PFASs, which once broken, can revert back to harmless chemical elements. They proved it was possible to degrade, or break down decarboxylating perfluorocarboxylic acids, PFCAs (a large class of PFAS) by separating its components in a chemical reaction using moderate heat and a mixture of water and dimethyl sulfoxide.
To date scientists have found it very difficult to degrade PFAS without using high temperature and pressure levels. It is a vast group of substances with complex chemical structures that persist for many, many years. This study offers real hope that scientists will help us to understand how PFAS can be broken down more easily and safely.
PFASs have been linked to serious health conditions including cancer, liver disease, and adverse changes in reproduction and childhood development. It has been detected in the blood of 97% of Americans. It has also been associated with hypertension in mid life women.
This study could one day help to reduce the risk to our health.