Eradicating PFAS Forever Chemicals?
Two exciting research developments from UC Riverside scientists, published in the journal “Nature Water”, have given rise to the hope that “forever chemicals” might be broken down and neutralized. The focus is on the subclass of these chemical products (PFAS) that contain chlorine atoms.
New research under the leadership of Professor Jinyong Liu and graduate student Jinyu Gao explored “photochemical degradation pathways and almost complete defluorination of chlorinated poly-fluoroalkyl substances.” The research found that a combination of ultraviolet light with sulfite could break chlorine-to-carbon bonds, which then started a chain of reactions that also split carbon-to-carbon and carbon-to-fluorine bonds.
Since the quick and near complete defluorination of PFAS compounds is necessary for an effective cleanup process, experts are seeing this work as a critical development. The final goal is to develop a process that will cut every carbon-fluorine bond to detoxify PFAS pollutants completely.
The low cost and availability of sulfite make the potential of this process attractive, with the second component, ultraviolet light already commonly used in water treatment plants to eliminate harmful microbes. Finally, the process yields fluorine ions used regularly in water supplies to promote dental health.
The second research study from Jinyong Liu’s team has discovered two bacteria species that can break down chlorinated PFAS compounds. Reported was the substantial defluorination of polychlorofluorocarboxylic acids triggered by anaerobic microbial hydrolytic dichlorination.
The increasing concerns regarding PFAS have triggered new research to develop means to destroy, or neutralize them, and recommend safe substitutes.
What are PFAS?
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of human-made chemicals that have gained significant attention due to their widespread use and potential health and environmental impacts. Understanding PFAS is crucial because these chemicals can persist in the environment, accumulate in the human body, and have been linked to a range of adverse health effects. It is essential to comprehend them, and their impact on our health and the environment.
Found everywhere in our environment “FOREVER CHEMICALS”, have earned the name because they are extremely durable. PFAS, a main contributor, does not break down easily leading to pervasive contamination due to strong fluorine-to-carbon chemical bonds. Large chemical companies initially produced PFAS, or “per-and polyfluoroalkyls substances” in the 1940’s after having synthesized them first in the 1930s.
Subsequently, consumer and industrial product manufacturers have used PFAS to enhance a diversity of products providing oil, heat, stain, or water resistance. Among these products are non-stick cookware, snack food bags, cleaning products, paints, cosmetics, outdoor gear, stain-and water-resistant carpeting and fabrics, food wraps, packaging, storage ware, toilet paper, dental floss, and firefighting foams.
In 2022 the EPA issued a new advisory warning stating that an exceedingly insignificant amount of PFAS detected in drinking inking water may pose risks. Further, when products containing PFAS wind up in landfills, the PFAS can leak into soil, air, and drinking water, polluting them.
More frightening yet, blood tests have revealed “forever chemicals” in the bloodstream of animals and humans. Healthwise, warnings have been issued regarding PFAS exposure and a higher risk for kidney and testicular cancer, increased cholesterol levels, and liver and immune system damage.
US Government Actions to Prevent PFAS Contamination
So, what has the government been doing to protect its citizens? In 2016 the FDA banned three specific perfluoroalkyl ethyl-containing chemicals, PFOA, PFOS, & PFOS- related products capable of degrading into PFOA. Also, in 2016 the FDA phased out the use of these materials in food contact applications.
In 2020, the FDA announced an agreement with PFAS manufacturers to voluntarily phase out use in food packaging contact substances over a three-year period. Continuing, in 2021 the White House announced a plan for eight federal agencies including the FDA, USDA, and EPA, to lead efforts to protect U.S. consumers from PFAS. Various states have also taken similar action.
Companies Settling Lawsuits: PFAS Testing and Cleanup
This year 2023 has seen four U.S. chemical manufacturing giants settle lawsuits over claims from U.S. cities and towns that the companies contaminated water supplies with dangerous “forever chemicals.” The funds will pay for testing and cleaning up water sources. 3M agreed to pay $10.3 billion over 13 years to provide funding for public water suppliers that have detected PFAS.
The lawsuits alleged that 3M knew that the chemicals in their consumer products could cause cancer, low fertility, birth defects, and other health problems Earlier this year Chemours, DuPont, and Corteva agreed to pay almost $1.9 billion to help resolve claims that they polluted drinking water with PFAS.
Media Catches On and Brings Awareness to PFAS Issues
Recently in 2023, PFAS have been in all forms of news, reporting on dangerous “forever chemicals” in drinking water, cosmetics, fish, water sources, etc. Take cosmetics; the media is actively alerting the public to the presence of PFAS “forever chemicals” in cosmetics, including perfumes, makeup, deodorants, hair products, skincare, shampoos, conditioners, and others.
This is important because the market for these products is exploding, as the world’s consumers become more aware of the allure of self-improvement through exposure to social media. For example, PFAS’s will give skin a desirable glossy sheen, therefore they are purposely added to cosmetic products. Further, there is a demand for durable, all-day wear makeup which the addition PFAS’s will provide. Makeup products that are promoted as “waterproof”, “wear resistant”, and/or “long-lasting” are most likely to contain fluorine from PFAS.
Now also, law firms are upping the ante by soliciting firefighters and others whose health may have been impaired by exposure to PFAS. PFAS are present in firefighting gear, and heat and water- resistant firefighting foams.
PFAS in Drinking Water
Drinking water is another concern, as a new federal study has indicated that as much as 45% of tap water in the U.S.A. may contain PFAS, jeopardizing the health of citizen-consumers. Bottled water has been found to be no safer. Government proposals both in the U.S. and Europe to ban or restrict PFAS from drinking water have been published in 2023.
Filtering PFAS out of tap water has been studied with the result that reverse osmosis has been found to be the most effective means of removing PFAS. Activated carbon filters have also been reported to be somewhat effective in removing around 70% of PFAS. Another PFAS concern in headlines is the contamination of freshwater fish across the entirety of U.S. waterways.
Cork uses no PFOA, PFOS, or PFOS-related products capable of degrading into PFOA in the formulation of its barrier coatings.
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