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Scientists Discover Low-Cost Method to Destroy "Forever Chemicals"

Researchers at Northwestern University have found a way break down PFAS, a class of synthetic chemicals used in everyday objects but linked to serious health risks.
Scientists Discover Low-Cost Method to Destroy "Forever Chemicals"

According to BBC News, chemists have identified how to destroy "forever chemicals" in a low-cost way for the first time, new research says.

Breakthrough over potentially harmful chemicals found in most homes (BBC News)

Excerpt from BBC News: Scientists have linked exposure to the substances, known as PFAS, at certain levels to serious health risks, including cancer and birth defects. Their resistance to water, oil and stains make them highly useful. PFAS are used in hundreds of everyday objects from frying pans to make-up. But it is these properties that make them so difficult to destroy. PFAS stands for poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances. There are around 4,500 of these fluorine-based compounds and they are found in almost every dwelling on Earth in products including food packaging, non-stick cookware, rain gear, adhesives, paper and paints. They have been identified in low levels in rainwater globally - but if they infiltrate water or soil in high level, they can become a serious concern. "There is an association between exposure and adverse outcomes in every major organ system in the human body," Elsie Sunderland, professor of environmental chemistry at Harvard University, said.
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Scientists have tried for years to find ways to break down PFAS, a class of synthetic chemicals used in the manufacture of consumer products that can linger permanently in the air, water and soil, which is why they're often referred to as "forever chemicals."

On Thursday, researchers at Northwestern University published a study showing that PFAS can be destroyed using two relatively harmless chemicals: sodium hydroxide or lye, a chemical used to make soap, and dimethyl sulfoxide, a chemical approved as a medication for bladder pain syndrome, writes NBC News.

'Forever chemicals' stay in the air and water permanently. But scientists have found a new way to destroy them (NBC News)

Excerpt from NBC News: Previously, the only operational way to break down PFAS was to expose the particles to extremely high temperatures — sometimes above 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit — in an incinerator. But that energy-intensive process can still release harmful chemicals into the environment. The new method appears to be safer and more energy-efficient. The Northwestern scientists added PFAS molecules to a solution of lye and dimethyl sulfoxide and exposed them to temperatures of up to 248 degrees Fahrenheit. The chemicals degraded into fluoride ions and other harmless byproducts. "One specific portion of these molecules falls off and sets off a cascade of reactions that ultimately breaks these PFAS compounds down to relatively benign products," William Dichtel, a professor of chemistry at Northwestern University who co-authored the study, said on a call with reporters.
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Using this approach, the team degraded ten PFASs, including PFOA — a chemical banned in most countries — and one of its common replacements, writes Nature.

How to destroy ‘forever chemicals’: cheap method breaks down PFAS (Nature)

Excerpt from Nature: Computational analyses suggested that this class of PFASs falls apart two or three carbons at a time rather than one carbon at a time, as generally assumed. Understanding the mechanisms through which these pollutants break down could inform approaches to solve the forever-chemicals problem. The researchers hope that the study will help others develop their own approaches to break down PFASs. "Anyone working on PFASs degradation can look at this and maybe have a better understanding of what might be going on," says co-author William Dichtel, who studies PFAS removal at Northwestern University. "Even though I don’t pretend that this is the final solution, it really is why I do science — so that I can have a positive impact on the world."
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