The Centers for Disease Control has linked PFAS toxins to birth defects, cancers and infertility. They also pose a threat to proper childhood development, prompt low birth weight and compromise immune system health.
These are harmful substances, which is why they are federally regulated, but they are also found nearly everywhere and in nearly everything. PFAS chemicals are used in nonstick coatings, shampoo, upholstery fabric, cleaning products, clothing, leather protectant, office supplies, paint, firefighting foams, insulation, and more.
Also called “forever chemicals” for their persistence in natural ecosystems, it seems scientists have found a way to remove them from the environment.
According to Phys.org, engineers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered a way to attract and destroy perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances in water using electrochemical reactions.
The engineers published their results in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.
PFAS chemicals can be hard to clean out of natural environments because they are water resistant and collect in low concentrations. It’s previously been nearly impossible to target these chemicals with great accuracy while attempting to clean up the rivers and water systems into which they have been released.
“This should be frightening to all Americans in many ways,” David Andrews, a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, told CBS. “These chemicals… don’t break down in our body and they don’t break down in our environment and they actually stick to our blood. So levels tend to increase over time.”
“These chemicals can impact a lot of different health systems, cause numerous health problems, everything from testicular and kidney cancer, heart to the liver, heart to the thyroid,” Andrews continued.
The new method of PFAS removal explored by Xiao Su, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and civil and environmental engineering professors Yujie Men and Roland Cusic, makes use of a tunable copolymer electrode to “attract and adsorb” the chemicals.
“The process not only removes these dangerous contaminants, but also destroys them simultaneously using electrochemical reactions at the opposite electrode, making the overall system highly energy-efficient,” Su said.
Using samples of municipal wastewater known to have PFAS contamination, the engineers found it took no more than a few hours to see results.
“Within three hours of starting the electrochemical adsorption process in the lab, we saw a 93% reduction of PFAS concentration in the low concentration spiked samples and an 82.5% reduction with a moderate concentration spiked samples, which shows the system can be efficient for different contamination contexts—such as in drinking water or even chemical spills,” Su said.
Su and his team call this method “processes intensification,” and believe it could be “an important approach for addressing environmental concerns related to energy and water,” Su said.
“We are also very interested in seeing how these basic copolymer concepts might work outside of environmental systems and help perform challenging chemical separations, such as drug purification in the pharmaceutical industry,” Su said.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.