Harmful ‘forever chemicals’ are found in water, makeup and clothing - now, a new method could destroy them

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  • PFAS, or forever chemicals, are found in hundreds of everyday products and pose a global threat to human health.
  • They can remain harmful for generations, but disposing of them has been challenging.
  • But a promising new technique using low temperatures and common reagents may dispose of them.

"Forever chemicals" are everywhere. From everyday items like non-stick pans to waterproof cosmetics and clothing, plasticware and food wrappers, these toxic man-made chemicals have been commonly used since the 1940s in industry and consumer products. Their function is to make products resistant to oil, heat, stain or water. 

recent global report shockingly revealed that rainwater everywhere on Earth was unsafe to drink because of the growing presence of these chemicals, also known as PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances) that exceed health guidelines.

READ MORE | Rainwater 'everywhere on the planet' unsafe to drink due to chemicals - study

Worryingly, forever chemicals can be ingested by humans and accumulate in the body. They disintegrate very slowly, and research has long linked them to a host of serious health risks, including problems with fertility, developmental delays in children, reduced immunity to fight infections, and an increased risk of certain cancers.

A report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found PFAS in the blood of 97% of Americans, News24 previously reported. Studies have also found PFAS in human blood and urine. 

Considering all the knowns, researchers have for years tried to find a way to get rid of these polluting compounds. But, as explained by researchers at Northwestern University: “Bacteria can’t eat them; fire can’t incinerate them; and water can’t dilute them,” so disposing of these chemicals has proved challenging - until now.

The new study

In new research making global headlines, chemists in the US and China this month announced a breakthrough method to degrade forever chemicals. The good news is that it's a relatively cheap and effective method.

As explained by Nature, current methods to destroy forever chemicals typically rely on expensive and harsh treatments, some of which require temperatures above 1 000 °C. 

READ MORE | Donating blood regularly has a surprising benefit, new study reveals

The latest method, however, offers light at the end of the tunnel. Using inexpensive reagents at low boil (temperatures of around 100 °C), the team managed to break down one of the largest groups of these harmful molecules, rendering them harmless.

Published in the journal Science, their findings document how the research team developed this process that causes two major classes of PFAS compounds to fall apart.

“PFAS has become a major societal problem,” co-author of the study, William Dichtel from Northwestern University, said in a news release. 

“Even just a tiny, tiny amount of PFAS causes negative health effects, and it does not break down. 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 unrecognised - our solution is,” he added.

Their simple technique could be a powerful solution for disposing of forever chemicals, they say.

READ MORE | Mothers' breast milk filled with 'forever chemicals', finds one US study

More work to be done

“I was truly shocked,” Shira Joudan, an environmental chemist at York University, told the New York Times. Joudan, who was not involved in the study, was impressed by researchers breaking down the chemicals so effectively.

Dichtel says they wanted to use chemistry to address this major problem and create a solution that the world can use. Despite the promising results, he says that a lot of work still needs to be done to ensure this method can be used outside the laboratory. “Then we’d be in a real position to talk practicality,” he told the Times.

Next, Dichtel and his team will test the effectiveness of its new strategy on other types of PFAS.

“There are other classes that don’t have the same Achilles’ heel, but… if we can identify it, then we know how to activate it to destroy it,” he says.

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