Researchers found a new way to destroy PFAS. Here's more about these 'forever chemicals'

"Forever Chemicals" may not stay forever.
Ayesha Gulzar
Non-stick pan and tap water.
Non-stick pan and tap water.

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Scientists have found a way to break down the so-called "forever chemicals" known as PFAS, leaving only benign end products. These chemicals are notoriously tough to break down. However, researchers from Northwestern University found a way to decompose them using inexpensive reagents at a relatively low temperature.

What products contain PFAS chemicals?

PFAS, short for "per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances," is a group of chemicals that have been in use since the 1950s. These chemicals are present in everyday products such as non-stick pans, fast-food containers/wrappers, microwaves, popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and candy wrappers. They are also found in personal care products such as shampoo, dental floss, and cosmetics.

These chemicals prevent corrosion and make products waterproof and stain-resistant, due to which they are extensively used in paints, varnishes, sealants, and fire extinguishing foams.

How are forever chemicals harmful?

PFAS substances are called "forever chemicals" because they do not naturally break down and accumulate in humans and the environment over time. These chemicals contain carbon-fluorine bonds, which are among the strongest chemical bonds in organic chemistry, making them quite resistant to degradation.

Although the health effects are not yet fully understood, exposure to high levels of PFAS has been linked to serious health problems, including decreased immunity, hormone disruption, thyroid dysfunction, an elevated level of cholesterol, and an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer.

Certain PFAS may affect children's growth and learning behavior and lower a woman's chance of getting pregnant. These observations generally pertain to only a few types of PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified more than 12,000 PFAS compounds, most of which are unstudied and potentially harmful.

Can forever chemicals be removed from the body?

Human exposure to PFAS is widespread. People get exposed to these chemicals mainly from drinking contaminated water, eating food packaged in certain materials, or using products embedded with PFAS.

Despite recent efforts to reduce its use, these chemicals have made their way into the blood of 97% of Americans. Potentially toxic levels of PFAS have also been detected in breastfeeding mothers in Lyon, France. This makes unborn children and babies particularly vulnerable since these chemicals can pass the placenta into the developing fetus' blood.

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These chemicals tend to remain unchanged in the body for long periods and can be measured in blood for years after exposure. It takes nearly four years for the level in the body to go down by half, assuming there is no additional exposure. PFAS accumulates in high concentrations in lung tissues, whereas other types tend to gather in the liver and bone.

To limit the exposure of PFAS to humans, the EPA issued guidelines with new limits for how much PFOS and PFOA should be in drinking water. The previous guideline, set in 2016, set a limit of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for both PFOS and PFOA in drinking water. The new advisories decrease that by more than a thousandfold. The new limit for PFOS is 0.02 ppt; for PFOA, it's 0.004 ppt.

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