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Scientists Discover Way to Destroy Harmful “Forever Chemicals” in Water Supply

New technology could help water utilities remove stubborn PFAS chemicals linked to cancer and other maladies.

PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” for a reason. Originally added to a wide variety of products ranging from firefighting foam to nonstick food packaging, the chemical bonds that make up per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, accumulate quickly and break down slowly over time, making the pollutants extremely persistent in the environment — and our drinking water supply.

Tap water delivered to an estimated 89 million people in communities across the U.S. tests positive for PFAS today, according to analysis of federal data by chemical industry watchdogs at the Environmental Working Group. However, researchers say the scope of the PFAS contamination crisis is likely much larger and more widespread, particularly in rural areas where testing on groundwater has yet to be conducted.

Exposure to common types of PFAS is linked to deadly cancers, heart and liver damage, and developmental problems in infants and children. Contamination is so widespread that scientists say virtually everyone living in the U.S. has traces of PFAS in their bloodstream.

Now, scientists may be discovering new ways to destroy stubborn PFAS molecules and remove the pollutants from the water supply for good.

In 2022, a team at University of California at Riverside discovered that blasting wastewater with special “short-wave” ultraviolet rays causes PFAS chemical bonds to break down without creating harmful byproducts. Led by Haizhou Liu, a professor of chemical and environmental engineering, the team announced a new finding this week that builds on their previous work: the discovery of a chemical process that uses the high levels of salt found in wastewater to break down the chemicals’ strong bonds.

“We were looking at PFAS with different carbon chains, short chains, and we also looked at salty wastewater that has a high concentration of chloride and sulfate,” Liu said in a statement. “The results show that the salinity in wastewater acts as a catalyst when receiving the UV light to make this process even more effective and much faster.”

The technology could also be used to clean industrial wastewater from landfills and certain chemical manufacturing plants as well as brackish groundwater impacted by PFAS pollution.

The discovery is expected to bolster the long-term effectiveness of “ion exchange,” one of the methods of removing PFAS from drinking water promoted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). After ion exchange removes PFAS, the contaminated wastewater can then be treated with the methods developed by Liu’s team, destroying PFAS molecules before they have a chance to leach back into the environment during waste disposal.

“There is a continued need for innovation in PFAS protection technology, particularly because of the byproducts of filtration” at water treatment plants, said Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, in an interview. “There are a lot of resources going into preventing that PFAS from getting back into the environment from our waste streams.”

The new technology is still in the pilot phase but comes at a critical time. In April, the EPA announced tough new federal limits on several harmful but common types of PFAS and gave water utilities until 2025 to conduct tests and determine whether their systems can meet the new standards.

The Biden administration also announced $1 billion in federal funding to help states, tribes and local governments to detect PFAS and remove the chemicals if levels exceed the federal limits. In total, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law championed by President Joe Biden provides $9 billion in federal funding for PFAS cleanup as part of a national action plan to prevent cancer and protect public health.

“Dr. Haizhou Liu and other scientists at UCR are working hard to bridge the gap between the regulations and solutions to PFAS contamination,” said David Danelski, a spokesman for the University of California Riverside team, in an interview. “We are collaborating with several utilities in southern California for pilot tests beyond the lab using real PFAS impacted water, and the results are very promising.”

Benesh said the federal limits on PFAS in drinking water set by the Biden administration is only the latest victory in a yearslong push to protect public health and hold PFAS polluters accountable.

It’s been over two decades since the first lawsuits over PFAS contamination impacting residents living near chemical plants were brought against 3M and DuPont, two major manufacturers of PFAS and related products. Two forms of PFAS made by the companies at the time — PFOA and PFOS — are now known to be particularly harmful, but Benesh said DuPont and 3M thwarted accountability for years as dangerous levels of PFAS built up in the environment.

“These companies knew for decades that they were poisoning the world; they knew that these chemicals were incredibly persistent, they knew these chemicals were getting into people’s blood, they knew their workers were getting sick, they knew these chemicals were contaminating nearby communities, and they lied about it for years,” Benesh said. “Not just Americans, every single creature is paying the cost for that,” Benesh added. “It’s in our blood and wildlife, it’s in the Arctic, it is everywhere — and that is purely because of corporate greed.”

The massive scope of PFAS contamination only became known to the public through the tireless efforts of environmental organizers, journalists, internal whistleblowers and angry neighbors living near chemical plants. Still, federal policy makers appeared to drag their feet until the problem was too big to ignore.

“There was a multi-administration failure to address these problems … as a result of that inaction, people have gotten sick and people have been exposed to toxic levels of these chemicals,” Benesh said of previous presidential administrations. “These PFAS regulations have been a long time coming, but the Biden administration really did prioritize them and bring them across the finish line.”

An EPA economic impact analysis estimates only 3,300 to 3,600 of about 66,000 treatment facilities will exceed the new maximum PFAS limits and be required to take decisive action.

“Those utilities will take steps to treat their water or change their source of water to make sure the people they are serving get clean water,” Benesh said. “Water utilities have also recovered billions of dollars from the manufacturers, so I think they have been investing in these upgrades and have already started recovering some of those costs from the companies.”

Biden’s EPA has also designated PFOS and PFOA as “hazardous substances” under the federal superfund law, which puts companies such as DuPont and 3M on the hook for paying for PFAS cleanup in areas with serious levels of contamination.

Environmental Working Group maintains a list of independently tested water filters that consumers can use at home to effectively remove PFAS from tap water.

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