This New PFAS Solution Isn’t a Silver Bullet, But It Paves the Way for Future Research

Scientists have discovered how to break down some “forever chemicals," and the method is actually simple. What does this mean for other PFAS?

Source: Leiem

PFAS — short for “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances” — have accumulated in the environment and humans very successfully thanks to their use in common items like rugs, water bottles, and cookware. They’re toxic synthetic chemicals that build up and resist things like water, oil, and grease, hence why they’re used for such a wide variety of things. The problem with PFAS — why they are referred to as “forever chemicals” — is that they don’t go away on their own. It’s scary to see that an estimated 98% of Americans have detectable levels of PFAS in their blood. Although past technologies have found ways to remove PFAS from the environment, researchers weren’t able to decompose the substances afterwards. For years scientists have searched for a way to break down these substances that are highly durable and can therefore persist all around us for long periods of time. 

Finally, research on these seemingly unbreakable compounds has paid off. Recent experimentation published in Science has found success with breaking down perfluorocarboxylic acids (PFCAs), one of the largest PFAS classes. Scientists used the common solvent dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO), which is derived from wood and has been used industrially since the mid-1800s. It’s actually a byproduct of paper production. This makes things a little easier implementation-wise; it’s a solvent that is relatively easy to access, and it comes from a renewable resource.

PFCAs, the class of chemicals DMSO was found to work with, certainly aren’t the only class of PFAS. But a scientific breakthrough like this opens up room to experiment on other classes as we look for ways in which other simple solutions may work.

DMSO may also be able to work with other classes of PFAS, once scientists are able to identify more class-specific methods. It hasn’t been tested, but researchers from this experiment note that the solvent may be generalizable to other PFAS. 

Considering scientists have been discovering the effects and behaviors of these “forever chemicals” since the 1950s, these results may come as somewhat surprising. There has been a solution to a major class of PFAS all along.

That said, the effects and existence of PFAS are so widespread that it’s hard to even know if a solution like DMSO is going to work everywhere. PFAS are in water, soil, fish and humans. Just in the 50 states and two territories, almost 3,000 contaminated sites were found this past June. Over 200 million Americans are impacted by contaminated water supplies. So there is a lot of ground to cover in tackling the PFAS crisis. DMSO doesn’t solve the entire problem of PFAS everywhere, but it paves a path forward.

Success stories like this are what fuels future research. Knowing that DMSO actually worked to combat the strength of PFCAs can build confidence in researchers to try simpler avenues before ruling them out. And there’s certainly room for growth when accounting for scale issues with DMSO, as well as the fact that it hasn’t been proven to work across other classes of PFAS. These chemicals we thought were nearly impossible to break down now are being cracked at by present innovation. That gives motivation. And this innovation will continue to inspire more research down the line as more potential PFAS destroyers are put to the test.

Like it? Share with your friends!

Hallie Cordingley
Hallie is an undergraduate student at Boston University majoring in both Environmental Analysis & Policy and Economics.


Leave a Reply