Plastic is found in a large variety of items used in modern society: from fire fighting foam to water bottles and non-stick utensils, producing comfortable and durable products. But in the long run, there are plastics that release dangerous chemicals called Perfluoroalkylates (PFAS)Able to penetrate soil and groundwater. These “eternal chemicals” can be everywhere: in food, in the air, and even in our bodies, where they can lead to unwanted consequences including cancer, child development issues, and weakened immunity.
Scientists have been working on ways to destroy the PFAS chemicals that permeate our environment, but they have found it difficult to find an easy way. This is because these compounds do not react with almost anything – not biological substances or other chemical agents. They only stick together and thus resist destruction.
Existing methods require “extremely complex conditions for the decomposition of these compounds”, Its description to Popular Mechanics Chemists from Northwestern University in Illinois, United States. Until now, it was not clear how to break this PFAS.
Recent work by this team, Published in Science On August 18, it appears that the stubborn power of PFAS can indeed be broken. Scientists have found a way to break down two toxic and concentrated forms of PFAS into smaller compounds that degrade. Using low heat, solvents, and sodium hydroxide, the method is simple and inexpensive. It works for two major classes of PFAS that permeate environment Today: Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and one of its popular alternatives, known as GenX.
The traditional difficulty in destroying PFAS is its many carbon-fluorine bonds. William Dichtel, lead author of the new study, explained in a press release that it requires enormous heat (about 400 degrees Celsius) and pressure to decompose, which can lead to air pollution during burning.
“In New York State, a factory that claimed to burn PFAS was found to release some of these compounds into the air,” says the chemistry professor. “The compounds were emitted from the chimneys into the local community,” he describes, adding that burial of PFAS also pollutes the environment a few decades later.
It turns out that PFAS chemicals have a weak point: they often include charged oxygen atoms at one end of their molecules, Scientific American explains. Dichtel’s team chose an unusual solvent that allows PFAS to be heated between 80°C and 120°C along with a reagent that helps a chemical reaction take place. The entire process took only 12 hours, and by the end, more than 90% of the PFAS chemicals had been converted into carbon-safe byproducts.
In previous attempts to destroy PFAS, other researchers have used high temperatures. The new technique, based on a cheap reagent and milder conditions, caused the carbon atoms to fall out two or three at a time, speeding up the process and making it safer.
PFAS has become a major social problem. Even a small amount of it causes negative health effects and does not degrade. We wanted to use chemistry to solve this question and create a solution that the scientist could use. It’s exciting because our solution is simple.”
PFAS is now considered so unsafe that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently declared that it should not be present in drinking water. With the discovery of the adverse health effects of these substances—PFAS can cause cancer, delay learning and even affect pregnancy and fertility in humans—tolerable levels of the “eternal chemicals” in water sold or supplied by sewage companies are being reduced.
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