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These toxic ‘forever chemicals’ take thousands of years to decompose — but scientists found their ‘Achilles’ heel’

“We should act quickly.”

PFAS, forever chemicals

Photo Credit: iStock

Scientists have discovered a groundbreaking way to dispose of “forever chemicals” — a family of human-made materials that take thousands of years to decompose.

Researchers at Northwestern discovered that heating forever chemicals, known as PFAS, in a dimethyl sulfoxide and sodium hydroxide mixture broke down the products’ chemical bonds. The most popular industrial solution right now is incineration, which releases toxic particles into the atmosphere. 

Forever chemicals are used in everyday items like food packaging, furniture, outdoor wear, and cooking utensils. 

There are around 4,700 forever chemicals. Many of them reduce surface tension, so they can be used as a non-stick solution like Teflon

Forever chemicals also typically repel fat and water and therefore protect furniture from spills. 

But bacteria cannot eat these forever chemicals, meaning they do not biodegrade naturally. They do, however, gradually erode off products and end up in our water, soil, air and, ultimately, our bodies. 

PFAS are ubiquitous. They have been found at the top of Mount Everest and in the Arctic sea ice. Rainwater all around the world is now considered unsafe to drink, because of PFAS. 

Around 97% of Americans have PFAS in their bodies. The impacts that PFAS have on people’s health include fertility problems, increased risk of cancer, immune system disorders, and obesity. 

Pressure is mounting on companies to break away from using PFAS. U.S. manufacturing company 3M recently committed to stop making new PFAS by 2025, after the state of California sued it for using toxic chemicals. 

At the moment, PFAS are impossible to remove from the environment. Water-treatment methods using activated carbon remove only a portion of PFAS, and even then it is expensive to carry out. 

But we can potentially reduce the volume of PFAS entering the environment with Northwestern’s breakthrough. 

“[The papers] suggested that some of these forever chemicals might have this kind of Achilles’ heel, or this weak point that would allow them to be degraded under more mild conditions,” professor William Dichtel, the study’s lead, told Daily Northwestern. “That really proved to be true.”

“If we want to [limit our exposure to PFAS] we should act quickly,” Elsie M. Sunderland, an environmental chemist at Harvard, said to Vox. “We should ban the non-essential uses, get rid of new production, and regulate them as a class. Most of the ways we use PFAS, we don’t need to, so why are we doing it?”

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