Elevated levels of PFAS forever chemicals have been found in artificial turf. David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe via Getty Images
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Researchers from the American Chemical Society have improved upon a method designed to break down per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of synthetic chemicals that have been linked to health issues and environmental pollution.
PFAS, also called forever chemicals, do not break down. Scientists have developed a technique to grind PFAS with metal balls and additives in a contained space. But this technique typically uses potassium hydroxide (KOH), which is corrosive and can cause clumping. Aside from this newer technique, the US Environmental Protection Agency has recommended destroying PFAS through incineration, but this method requires a lot of energy and may not prevent contamination in the environment.
So American Chemical Society scientists developed another approach to the ball milling technique that uses a more effective additive. Boron nitride is a piezoelectric material that is non-corrosive, so it can be used to break down PFAS at ambient temperature and pressure.
With the boron nitride as an additive in ball milling, the researchers demonstrated “the complete destruction and near-quantitative (∼100%) defluorination of solid PFOS and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)” in a 2-hour treatment, according to their study, published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
They used the same process on sediment contaminated with PFAS and were able to destroy about 80% of the 21 PFAS they were targeting during a six-hour treatment. The findings show that using boron nitride was more efficient at breaking down PFAS in ball milling compared to ball milling that uses KOH as an additive.
The researchers hope this study will create more opportunities to effectively remove PFAS from the environment with further research and development.
PFAS are found just about everywhere, from food packaging to outerwear and outdoor gear to firefighting foam. They have also been found in the human body, including in the blood.
In humans, PFAS have been linked to reproductive issues; developmental impacts in children; increased risk of certain types of cancer, including kidney cancer; and reduced antibody responses.
In the environment, PFAS may be linked to hormone changes or reduced breeding in animals, but more research is underway to determine how these chemicals are impacting wildlife.
Other studies have also examined ways to destroy PFAS aside from incineration. One study includes the use of supercritical water oxidation, which could help destroy PFAS in wastewater but may be difficult to scale up to industrial use. The US Air Force has also tested plasma reactors to break down PFAS in groundwater. Another study used sodium hydroxide, or lye, to degrade PFAS to fluoride ions by about 78% to 100% in 24 hours.
Scientists will continue their search to determine the extent of PFAS’ impacts on human health and the environment as well as ways to permanently degrade and destroy these chemicals.