The race to destroy PFAS, the endlessly chemical compounds 

The PFAS pattern slides across the within the plastic jar after I swirl it, darkish and murky, like skinny maple syrup. For a lot of, these poisonous so-called “endlessly chemical compounds” quantity to one thing of a specter, having crept into our lives—and our bodies—quietly for greater than half a century. Within the surroundings, PFAS are clear and odorless. We could hear about them within the headlines, think about them after we activate the faucet for a glass of water or a bathe, however we don’t see them. We will’t contact them. Besides that’s precisely what I discover myself doing.

PFAS stands for “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” a household of upwards of 15,000 or extra human-made and extremely sturdy chemical compounds which were utilized in numerous industrial and client functions for many years. Firefighting foams, waterproof mountain climbing boots, raincoats, nonstick frying pans, dental floss, lipstick, and even the ink used to label packaging—all can include PFAS. The compounds are ubiquitous in ingesting water and soil, even migrating to Arctic sea ice. PFAS are known as endlessly chemical compounds as a result of as soon as current within the surroundings, they don’t degrade or break down. They accumulate, are transferred all through the watershed, and in the end persist. 

The search to scale back the quantity of PFAS within the surroundings is what led me to an industrial park in a southern suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The jar of PFAS focus in my hand is a part of an indication organized by my hosts, Revive Environmental, throughout a tour of the corporate’s PFAS destruction website, one of many first within the nation to function commercially and at scale. A number of yards in entrance of me sits the corporate’s PFAS “Annihilator” in a white transport container. 

The Annihilator represents simply one in all a number of applied sciences now vying to interrupt down and destroy PFAS. These span the gamut from established processes like electrochemical oxidation and supercritical water oxidation to rising methods counting on ultraviolet mild, plasma, ultrasound, or catalyst-driven thermal processes. Some are deployed in area exams. Different corporations are actively working pilot packages, many with varied divisions of the US Division of Protection and different authorities businesses. And plenty of different applied sciences are nonetheless present process laboratory analysis.

There’s good cause for this. Not solely are PFAS in every single place round us; they’re additionally in us. People can’t break down PFAS, and our our bodies wrestle to clear them from our programs. Research counsel they’re in my blood and yours—nearly all of People’, in truth—they usually have been linked to elevated dangers of kidney and testicular most cancers, decreased toddler birthweights, and hypertension. And that’s solely what we learn about now: researchers proceed to grapple with the total impacts of PFAS on human and environmental well being. 

Revive’s Annihilator and different nascent destruction applied sciences present the primary indicators of promise that these “endlessly chemical compounds” may be faraway from the surroundings completely, limiting additional human publicity and danger. However destroying PFAS is just one step within the full remediation course of. Throughout the globe, researchers are creating new applied sciences and methods to raised perceive, take a look at, and observe the chemical compounds—in addition to figuring out different supplies—to get rid of PFAS for good. 

Breaking it down

PFAS traces again to the mid-20th century, when the chemical big 3M invented PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) to stop nonstick coatings from clumping throughout manufacturing. Finally, 3M started promoting the fabric to fellow chemical corporations, together with DuPont, which used the fabric for its then revolutionary coating, Teflon. Later different producers, comparable to Chemours and Corteva, would develop and produce their very own manufacturers. The well being impacts of PFAS and extent to which the chemical compounds had pervaded the surroundings wouldn’t be found till the early 2000s, when authorized motion in opposition to DuPont unearthed proof that chemical corporations knew among the dangers PFAS posed to human well being but deliberately dumped them into waterways and unprotected holding ponds, the place they ultimately made their manner into ingesting water and other people. 

Although it has been years because the preliminary hazards of PFAS have been made public, scientists and regulators have since struggled with how finest to remediate the contamination and hold individuals secure. Historically, PFAS are handled by commonplace water filtration strategies: granular activated carbon, reverse osmosis, ion change resins. These strategies work terribly nicely to seize PFAS. The issue is, although, that when captured, the chemical compounds don’t go away. The filters are discarded or chemically washed for reuse, and the notoriously clingy PFAS reenter the surroundings by landfills and wastewater. Incineration—one other conventional mitigation approach—dangers sending undestroyed PFAS compounds up the smokestack and into the air. All of the whereas, PFAS proceed to be manufactured, used, discarded, and circulated by the surroundings. And so the hunt is on for a method to make the endlessly chemical compounds a bit extra ephemeral.

For the Annihilator, Revive makes use of a destruction technique known as supercritical water oxidation (SCWO) to cleave the sturdy carbon fluorine bonds that characterize PFAS compounds. In one other transport container, which serves because the monitoring station for the Annihilator, David Trueba factors to a financial institution of pc screens displaying knowledge from the assorted sensors contained in the destruction gadget. Trueba is the president and CEO of Revive and serves as one in all my guides on the tour. SCWO is actually a PFAS strain cooker, he explains, heating and compressing the contaminated liquid to a supercritical state of above 500 °C and three,200 PSI. In that state, the place water is caught in a form of purgatory between liquid and gasoline, oxygen turns into soluble, and the ensuing oxidation drives the response that in the end destroys the PFAS. Amongst different functions, SCWO has been used to decommission and destroy outdated stockpiles of mustard gasoline, the brutal chemical weapon that plagued the trenches of World Conflict I. Battelle, a nationwide analysis nonprofit, tailored SCWO to focus on PFAS and spun off Revive as a non-public entity with funding from Viking World Buyers in January 2023. 

foam from a firefighter's extinguisher spraying toward the camera
The DoD is funding
analysis into different
firefighting foams that
meet army requirements.

After the PFAS is destroyed, the answer undergoes a number of post-treatment procedures. Then it’s cooled and pumped into plastic totes for storage and eventual discharge to the native wastewater therapy plant. The completed product is aqua blue, resembling water you may see at a Caribbean seashore, and Trueba says it exams under Michigan’s most contaminant stage requirements for PFAS. 

Approaches and targets

Revive’s destruction operation targets PFAS in landfill leachate—a scientific time period for what happens when rainwater passes by landfill waste, absorbing chemical compounds and contaminants from the decomposing materials alongside the best way. Landfill leachate is among the main sources of PFAS contamination, which is unsurprising since that’s the place many PFAS-laden merchandise find yourself. 

Earlier within the tour we’d walked to an adjoining facility the place a pair of staff, clad in heavy jumpsuits, arduous hats, and boots, manned a hose working from the again of a polished-steel semi-trailer. The employees have been pumping leachate trucked from a close-by landfill by Heritage-Crystal Clear, an environmental companies firm that’s partnered with Revive. The odor was about what you’d anticipate from a brown, sludgy cocktail of decomposition. 

“It’s the odor of cash,” Trueba mentioned. Later, he informed me: “Innovation, in my thoughts, isn’t just an thought, nevertheless it’s getting paid for it. It’s getting the worth out there as a result of the market values that it’s being adopted.” 

Which will sound a bit brutally capitalistic for a widespread societal situation like PFAS, but specialists level to the very real-world problems with price dealing with the businesses and municipalities footing the invoice for PFAS destruction. As a lot as there’s a race to destroy PFAS, there’s additionally a race to do it as cost-effectively and effectively as attainable. And Revive, with its model of SCWO expertise, isn’t the one one working the observe.

“It’s vital that this downside isn’t a tens or lots of of trillion {dollars} downside. It must be saved to, like, a multibillion-dollar downside,” says Daniel Cho, founder and CEO of Onvector, a water therapy firm utilizing plasma expertise to destroy PFAS. 

Video of Onvector’s expertise exhibits a bright-blue flickering mild, much like a welding arc, accompanied by a high-pitched screech. Throughout our dialog, Cho refers back to the expertise as “lightning and hearth reliably delivered inside a flowing cyclone of water.” It’s a catchy phrase, meant to include a number of PhDs’ value of science in a neat, memorable package deal. In actuality, the technicalities are extra complicated. 

Onvector’s expertise combines the actions of a centrifugal separator with an electrode that ionizes gasoline injected into the gadget. The ensuing response creates high-energy electrons that assault and break down the PFAS compounds. The system is at present deployed at Joint Base Cape Cod in Massachusetts and was partially supported by grant funding from AFWERX, the skunkworks division of the US Air Drive. Cho expects to completely scale Onvector in 2024, he says. 

One other promising PFAS destruction expertise is underneath improvement by Washington-based Aquagga. The corporate makes use of a technique often known as HALT (hydrothermal alkaline therapy), a form of cousin to the SCWO course of utilized by Revive. HALT additionally depends on strain and warmth to destroy PFAS, nevertheless it introduces sodium hydroxide as a catalyst earlier than therapy. This enables PFAS to be handled at a lot decrease temperatures than SCWO, says Brian Pinkard, Aquagga’s cofounder and chief expertise officer.

Like SCWO, the expertise was first developed to deal with stockpiles of chemical weapons. Researchers from the Colorado Faculty of Mines tailored it to destroy PFAS and licensed Aquagga to deploy it commercially. Pinkard was uncovered to the foundations of HALT expertise whereas engaged on his doctorate on the College of Washington, which concerned decommissioning stockpiles of lethal nerve brokers like sarin and VX gasoline. He views PFAS destruction and chemical weapons destruction as comparable “downside units.” 

“You will have this poisonous waste. No person needs to move it. No person needs to burn it,” Pinkard says. “Everybody needs to have a system they will convey on-site, plug it right into a barrel or tote, course of the waste on-site, and switch it into unhazardous byproducts.” 

Whereas these and different rising destruction applied sciences present promise, there’s no single resolution to get rid of PFAS from the surroundings, and every expertise presents its personal challenges. SCWO struggles with excessive concentrations of salt and requires pretreatment to take away it. The method additionally yields hydrofluoric acid, which Revive should neutralize earlier than the cleaned liquid can reenter the municipal water system. HALT requires its sodium hydroxide catalyst to perform, whereas plasma has but to show cost-effective at scale. In the meantime, different corporations are creating strategies of treating PFAS in strong matter.

Then there’s the matter of which particular PFAS chemical compounds are literally being destroyed. Numbers fluctuate extensively, however specialists estimate that between 6,000 and 15,000 separate PFAS compounds exist. Destruction applied sciences are efficient at eliminating a few of them, just like the PFOS and PFOA subgroups extensively utilized in industrial and client functions. Nonetheless, these compounds additionally occur to be essentially the most extensively understood and controlled by state environmental businesses. 1000’s extra are understudied and undertested, and the jury continues to be out on whether or not present destruction applied sciences can get rid of them. Even foam fractionation, a well-liked and environment friendly technique for separating and concentrating PFAS previous to destruction, struggles to gather PFAS compounds that aren’t as vulnerable to foaming.

A worker driving a forklift of containers into a shipping container

A employee masses PFAS-contaminated leachate into the PFAS Annihilator.

These uncertainties gas a great deal of conjecture and jockeying amongst PFAS destruction corporations. Entry to a considerable untapped market is on the road, and a few corporations are fast to carry up their very own applied sciences as the tip recreation. The truth is, although, it’s going to probably take a variety of mature applied sciences, every deployed in conditions matching their strengths, to unravel the issue. 

“Backside line is that the best way that we method therapy might be very website dependent, and we predict that it’s best to have a number of choices,” a senior US Protection Division official mentioned in an interview with MIT Expertise Evaluate.           

The DoD is among the main drivers of analysis on PFAS destruction, having funded, indirectly, lots of the applied sciences getting used in the present day. A lot of the work the DoD has supported is geared toward contamination round army installations. For years, the US army sprayed a fabric often known as aqueous movie forming foam (AFFF) to place out fires, whether or not in coaching or in real-world conditions. AFFF is chock-full of among the most dangerous PFAS compounds, and the DoD has since spent substantial cash and energy attempting to remediate the ensuing air pollution. 

The DoD businesses that conduct environmental R&D and validation have funded $160 million value of PFAS destruction and associated initiatives alone since taking over the cost in 2009, based on the division official. Outdoors the DoD, the Biden administration additionally lately made the difficulty a key precedence, allocating $5 billion from its 2023 Bipartisan Infrastructure Regulation to handle PFAS contamination.

A long time of proliferation

Regardless of the progress on destruction applied sciences, the bodily (or chemical) act of destroying PFAS represents solely a fraction of the work required to rid the surroundings of those compounds for good. Repurposing the normal remediation applied sciences and methods used to deal with main contaminants like chlorinated hydrocarbons (together with PCBs), pesticides (together with DDT), and lead merely gained’t reduce it with PFAS, says Philip Simon, founder and president of Ann Arbor Technical Companies, an environmental consulting agency primarily based in Michigan. PFAS, in lots of instances, require a rewrite of the remediation playbook. 

“You’ve received a whole lot of compounds used very broadly in commerce in an unregulated setting for 70 years,” Simon says. “That by no means occurred with PCBs—by no means. That didn’t occur with chlorinated pesticides. So should you assume that DDT and chlorinated pesticides, after which later PCBs, foreshadow what we’re up in opposition to right here, overlook it. It’s far more difficult than that.”

Whereas the PFAS playbook continues to be being written, a part of the work includes new strategies of environmental forensics, a area basically amounting to chemical detective work. PFAS—and different contaminants—all have their very own chemical fingerprints, says Simon. Producers use barely totally different chemistries and processes when creating the compounds. These variations, and the impurities launched alongside the best way, give PFAS distinctive signatures that forensics specialists can hint again to the supply. This kind of intelligence offers a extra correct image of the particular forms of PFAS current at a contamination website, making extra focused remedies attainable. Going ahead, forensics can be prone to play a pivotal position in figuring out which events are accountable for releasing PFAS and may subsequently fund remediation efforts, Simon says. 

The DoD started funding forensics initiatives associated to PFAS in 2020 and has since supported initiatives together with making a forensic library of PFAS compounds, creating cell labs for speedy PFAS evaluation, and utilizing machine-learning fashions for PFAS recognition and evaluation. 

Much more vital than eliminating the PFAS already within the surroundings is making certain that they’re not used, and even made, within the first place. There’s been substantial progress on this space: with the cloud of national-scale PFAS regulation looming and clients turning into more and more conscious of the potential well being dangers, extra corporations are diving into their provide chains to seek out the place the PFAS are and tips on how to supply replacements, says Shari Franjevic, program supervisor at GreenScreen for Safer Chemical compounds, which offers certifications for merchandise freed from PFAS and different dangerous substances. GreenScreen’s web site lists round 150 merchandise the group has deemed secure, together with chemical compounds for textile manufacturing, cleansing, meals service, and firefighting. The DoD can be funding analysis into different firefighting foams that meet army requirements, a number of of which present “promise,” based on the protection official. 

In lots of instances, compounds that have been used earlier than the widespread introduction of PFAS nonetheless supply viable and safer options, Franjevic says, citing the pure waxes as soon as widespread in dental floss and meals packaging. 

“I feel that when individuals take into consideration options, they make the belief that new chemistry have to be invented or discovered,” Franjevic says. “And normally, it’s simply not true, as a result of there are historic merchandise that used different chemistries.” 

Main chemical producers have additionally begun yielding to mounting strain to stop PFAS manufacturing and reply for his or her roles, and infrequently their complacency, in PFAS contamination. In mid-2023, 3M agreed to a $10.three billion settlement to fund remediation of PFAS in public water for the subsequent 13 years. The settlement comes on the heels of 3M’s announcement in late 2022 that it will cease all manufacturing of PFAS by 2025. Different main PFAS producers, together with DuPont, Chemours, and Corteva, agreed to an almost $1.2 billion settlement relating to their roles in PFAS manufacturing and contamination in mid-2022.    

Weaning each trade and customers off PFAS is proving an uphill battle, although. Like chemical vigilantes, these compounds could go away a multitude of their wake, nevertheless it’s arduous to dispute their effectiveness. Whereas 3M could plan to cease manufacturing, quite a few different chemical corporations throughout the globe nonetheless manufacture PFAS, and the willingness to undertake options varies by trade. 

“That notion of peak PFAS, I feel, continues to be very, very elusive,” Cho of Onvector says. “We now have to manage how we make it or [determine] what the important makes use of are.” 

In meals packaging, for instance, PFAS are usually used as a grease or liquid barrier on merchandise together with pizza packing containers, ingesting straws, and disposable espresso cups. Whereas PFAS-free meals packaging exists out there, most doesn’t stay as much as the efficiency or price requirements demanded by trade, says Keith Vorst, director of the Polymer and Meals Safety Consortium and affiliate professor within the Division of Meals Science and Human Diet at Iowa State College. “I don’t know that the model house owners are prepared to surrender efficiency,” Vorst says. “There’s an excessive amount of concern.” 

Iowa State scientists, together with Vorst and his colleague Greg Curtzwiler, are experimenting with embedding polymers and binding brokers into agricultural byproducts like espresso grounds and cassava root to create packaging with out “intentionally-added PFAS,” Vorst says. 

The phrase“intentionally-added” underscores simply how prickly the PFAS downside is. As a result of the compounds are so widespread within the surroundings, a product could inadvertently take them up by the supplies, together with water, used to supply it, Vorst says. He notes that merchandise containing recycled and recovered supplies are notably vulnerable to PFAS publicity as a result of these recycled supplies, like paper, could already be contaminated.                

The complexity and pervasiveness of PFAS make remediation overwhelmingly troublesome, although progress is being made. Huge quantities of time and sources have been devoted to understanding the compounds’ chemical personalities, their vulnerabilities, and their implications for the surroundings and human well being. However the progress that has been made has come from individuals and teams battling important headwinds: environmental indifference, political skittishness, and trade obfuscation. The sense amongst these I interviewed suggests that every one this work is now coalescing, simply ready for a nudge over the sting to essentially acquire momentum and enact lasting change. Many consider that nudge will come within the type of federal regulation.

In March 2023, the US Environmental Safety Company proposed nationwide ingesting water requirements for six PFAS compounds as a part of the company’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap. These requirements quantity to options at this level, however trade insiders anticipate laws relating to PFAS contamination in water, soil, and different elements of the surroundings to be adopted by the tip of 2024. The European Union can be exploring sweeping restrictions on the manufacture and use of PFAS. In Australia, New South Wales and South Australia have each banned using PFAS-laden firefighting foams, and the Australian authorities’s Division of Local weather Change, Vitality, the Atmosphere, and Water is creating a nationwide PFAS administration plan. As soon as laws take impact, everybody from personal landfill house owners and municipalities to producers might be compelled to look at their position in dealing with PFAS and make investments to take away the compounds from their course of or destroy them altogether. 

Within the US, nevertheless, within the absence of strict federal pointers, PFAS regulation has so far been left within the arms of particular person states. “The states are performing on their very own timeline. A few of them are ready to see what the federal authorities does. Some are transferring sooner,” says Pinkard of Aquagga. “It’s all taking place in actual time. It’s modified so much even within the final 12 months.” Some states, like Michigan, Maine, and Wisconsin, have developed enforceable drinking-water requirements. However many others have stopped far wanting enforceable laws, with some doing nothing in any respect to manage PFAS. 

“Individuals aren’t going to deal with water past what they’re regulatorily required,” Cho says. He additionally notes that “the shortage of nationally harmonized laws on PFAS has been a significant impediment towards the evolution on this [PFAS destruction] house.” 

Finally, the diploma to which PFAS is faraway from the surroundings will come right down to the collective will of regulators, trade, and society at giant. Whereas policymakers inch nearer to regulation and personal trade sweats it out over legal responsibility and danger, researchers creating destruction applied sciences plan to proceed demonstrating that even endlessly chemical compounds are removed from invincible. 

John Wiegand is a contract journalist primarily based in Michigan.

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