PFAS Decontamination: What You Need to Know About Disposing Forever Chemicals

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of man-made chemicals that have become an increasing concern in recent years.


These synthetic chemicals can persist for years in the environment and the human body, thus posing potential health risks. Often referred to as “forever chemicals”, PFAS are found in many consumer products and food packaging, as well as in drinking water sources. 


Understanding where these chemicals come from, how to avoid them, and new methods to destroy them can empower you to lower your exposure.


Understanding PFAS Chemicals


PFAS are a group of synthetic compounds widely used since 1940 in various industrial and consumer applications.


These chemicals are known for their water, heat, and oil-resistant properties. According to DSSTox, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) official toxicity database, there are over 14,730 unique PFAS compounds. PubChem, on the other hand, expects the number to be over 6 million. Their unique structure, with strong carbon-fluorine bonds, presents a major challenge in destroying them. 


Common sources of PFAS contamination include firefighting foam, non-stick utensils, drinking water sources, stain-resistant textiles, and specific forms of food packaging. PFAS exposure is associated with critical health effects, including cancer, thyroid disease, and reproductive issues.


The Fight Against PFAS


The battle against PFAS isn’t confined to labs; it’s raging in courtrooms and legislative chambers too. 


Thousands of cases have been registered against PFAS manufacturers, holding them accountable for contamination and seeking compensation for affected communities. The AFFF foam lawsuit, for instance, targets manufacturers of firefighting foams linked to widespread PFAS pollution. 


These legal battles not only raise awareness but also push for industry accountability and potentially pave the way for future regulations. At a legislative level, the tide is turning too. 


Several states, including California, Maine, and New York, have set stricter drinking water limits for certain PFAS. The EPA is also taking action, proposing a national drinking water standard and investigating additional PFAS regulations. While these initiatives are encouraging, advocates urge for even more comprehensive regulations to address PFAS contamination across various sources, including industrial discharges and consumer products.


As of January 2024, the Attorney General of Connecticut filed two lawsuits against 28 chemical manufacturers. According to TorHoerman Law, many significant lawsuits have already been settled. For instance, DuPont, Chemours Co., and Corteva Inc. settled over 1 billion in compensation with drinking water providers. Similarly, 3M has also agreed to a $10.3 billion settlement, which remains the biggest settlement so far in the PFAS saga.


Best Practices for PFAS Decontamination


High-temperature incineration above 1,000 °C can destroy PFAS, but this process requires specialized facilities. 


Moreover, this method also creates certain by-products such as carbon tetrafluoride, hexafluoroethane, trifluoroacetic acid, and hydrogen fluoride. These chemicals can contaminate the air, soil, and water as they are known to travel via air for several miles. This method has shown no effectiveness so far. Another method, once recommended by the EPA, is landfill disposal.


However, as these chemicals stay forever in the environment and might leak into the soil and water sources. Hence, this method is also obsolete. Other methods like plasma arc and gasification techniques can reach sufficient temperatures for PFAS destruction. But, more research is required. 


Chemical methods like electrochemical oxidation and activated per sulfate are emerging for the in situ treatment of contaminated groundwater. While promising, current technologies all have downsides, from high-energy use to toxic byproducts. The only promising method so far was discovered by researchers from Northwestern University.


This method uses two common chemicals: sodium hydroxide or lye, and dimethyl sulfoxide. The former is used to manufacture soap and the latter as a bladder pain management medication. The scientists mixed PFAS molecules with these chemicals and heated them to 248 degrees Fahrenheit (120 °C). The solution broke down into fluoride ions and some harmless waste.


However, this method only works on PFOA and GenX chemicals and not on PFOS. So, the researchers are looking into other solutions as well. Experts estimate that it’ll take at least several years until a proven, scalable, and wide-scale solution can be introduced to the public.


Actions You Can Take To Reduce PFAS Exposure


Within your home, avoid stain and water-repellent finishes and fabrics labeled stain or water-resistant whenever possible. 


Ditch non-stick pans for stainless steel, cast iron, or enamel cookware. Check labels on microwave popcorn bags, fast food wrappers, and cake mixes, and choose products free from PFAS coatings. 


Filtering home drinking water using reverse osmosis or granular activated carbon effectively removes PFAS.


In conclusion, the fight against PFAS contamination is multifaceted, involving legal battles, government initiatives, and ongoing research efforts. 


While PFAS contamination poses complex challenges, growing public awareness and pressure on corporations and regulators gives hope. Safer alternatives exist for many nonessential PFAS uses. Meanwhile, innovators continue to develop new destruction methods. With ongoing advocacy, research, and care in consumer choices, the threat of these “forever chemicals” will not last forever. 


The journey to eliminating PFAS while transitioning to safer alternatives requires persistence, but a future free from this toxic burden is possible.

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