Scientists have invented a method to break down ‘forever chemicals’ in our drinking water. Here’s how

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Johnny Wood, Writer, Forum Agenda

  • Researchers have discovered a way to eliminate ‘forever chemicals’ that usually take hundreds or thousands of years to break down.
  • These harmful chemicals are found in numerous everyday applications and can be ingested by humans through drinking water.
  • Legislation is being planned by the EU and countries like the US to restrict their future use.

How long does it take toxic ‘forever chemicals’ to break down? It’s a trick question, because as their nickname suggests, they don’t break down… at least not for hundreds or potentially thousands of years.

However, researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) have developed a new water treatment that filters and removes harmful forever chemicals – or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to use their proper name – from drinking water, safely, efficiently and permanently.

Where do PFAS come from?

You can’t see them with the naked eye. But with more than 4,700 substances in use, PFAS applications are more than likely in your home or workplace and often end up in the environment – specifically seeping into rainwater, soil, sediment and drinking water, where they can be ingested by humans and animals.

Industry has been using these manufactured chemicals since the 1940s: including to waterproof wet weather gear; make non-stick cookware non-stick; in stain-resistant fabrics and carpets; some cosmetics; firefighting foams; products that are manufactured to be grease-, water- or oil-resistant; fast-food packaging; household products like shampoo and dental floss… the list goes on.

Lead scientist Dr Mohseni and his team at UBC have developed a unique silica-based material with a high capacity to absorb a range of PFAS from drinking water. The reusable material acts like a filter, trapping most of the harmful particles, which are then destroyed using unique electrochemical and photochemical processes developed by the researchers.

“Our adsorbing media captures up to 99% of PFAS particles and can also be regenerated and potentially reused. This means that when we scrub off the PFAS from these materials, we do not end up with more highly toxic solid waste that will be another major environmental challenge,” said Dr Mohseni.

Separate research by scientists at Arizona State University in the US, uses microorganisms to break down PFAS.

Led by 2018 Stockholm Water Prize winner Bruce Rittmann, the team uses a specially modified membrane known as MCfR that causes a reaction in water, to attack the chemical composition of PFAS particles it contains. The water is then treated by microorganisms in a special reactor (MBfR) to break down the remaining pollutant particles, which possess among the strongest carbon-bonds in chemistry.

“We use the MCfR to knock off a few to all of the fluorines, and then we hand that water with those compounds over to the microorganisms in the MBfR, and they finish the job,” said Rittmann.

What health impacts are associated with PFAS?

Most people come into contact with forever chemicals through food, consumer products or by drinking contaminated water. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to health problems such as liver damage, thyroid disease, obesity, fertility issues and cancer, according to the European Environment Agency.

Noxious particles from sprays, chemicals and treatments accumulate over time and can end up polluting waterways or being absorbed into the body from using certain cosmetics.

While PFAS are no longer used by manufacturers in countries like Canada, where the research was conducted, they are still found in various products.

Across the border, most people in the US have been exposed to PFAS and have traces of the pollutants in their blood, according to the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

However, the use of the most common types of forever chemicals has declined in the US, with tests of contamination levels in the blood of people in the US showing forever chemicals like PFOS levels have declined by more than 85%, and PFOA levels by more than 70% during the first two decades of the century.

But as the main PFAS chemicals are phased out, they may be replaced by others that leave people exposed to health risks, the ATSDR notes.

Countries move to enforce PFAS legislation

Contaminants like forever chemicals are symptomatic of the wider pollution and environmental breakdown harming the planet.

A graphic showing the top 10 global risks over a 2-year period and 10-year period.

Environmental damage incidents are both a short- and long-term threat to society. Image: World Economic Forum.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023 lists large-scale environmental damage as the sixth most pressing short-term threat to society.

Meanwhile, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, natural resource crises and large-scale environmental damage incidents are three of the top-10 list of perceived threats in the next 10 years.

Responding to the damage caused by pollutants, the EU and countries like the US are set to enforce legislation to restrict the widespread use of PFAS.

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: