Scientists may have found an affordable way to destroy forever chemicals

A team of scientists may have found a safe and affordable way to “destroy chemicals forever.” PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are found in many household items, including non-stick Teflon pans and dental floss. According to the , at least 12,000 such substances exist today. They all share one feature: a carbon-fluorine backbone, which is one of the strongest known bonds in organic chemistry. This gives PFAS-treated cookware its non-stick properties. However, the same property can make these substances harmful to humans.

Because they are so long-lived from a molecular perspective, PFAS can persist in soil and water for generations. Scientists have shown that prolonged exposure to them can lead to an increased risk of some types of cancer, reduced immunity, and effects on children’s development. Researchers have spent years trying to find a way to destroy the carbon-fluorine bond that makes PFAS so tenacious, but a breakthrough may be on the horizon.

In a study , a group of chemists from UCLA, Northwestern University and China found that a mixture of sodium hydroxide, a chemical used in lye, and an organic solvent called dimethyl sulfoxide, produced a large subgroup of PFAS known as perfluorocarboxylic acids, or PFCAs , effectively breaks down . When lead author Brittany Trang heated the mixture between 175 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit (about 79 to 121 degrees Celsius), she began breaking the bonds between the PFAS molecules. After a few days, the mixture can even reduce any fluorine by-products into harmless molecules. The sodium hydroxide is part of what makes the mix so potent. It binds to PFAS molecules after the dimethyl sulfoxide has softened them and accelerated their degradation.

Professor William Dichtel, one of the study’s co-authors, There is still work to be done before the solution works outside of the lab. There is also the enormity of the problem. In February, scientists found that humans release about 50,000 tons of PFAS chemicals into the atmosphere each year. Another found that rainwater is undrinkable anywhere on Earth due to the ubiquity of these substances. However, scientists are understandably excited about Trang’s discovery as it could help researchers find other novel ways to destroy PFAS.

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