It’s a daunting task: How to break down “the forever chemical?”
But scientists across the country are researching, with urgency, ways to bust apart or capture per- and polyflouroalkyl substances, or PFAS. State officials suspect the potentially harmful compound could be contaminating more than 11,000 sites in Michigan, and hundreds more across the country.
Among the efforts:
- At Michigan State University, a technology using arrays of tiny diamonds and high voltage has shown promise in breaking apart PFAS molecules — but the huge energy demands involved make scaling it up for larger treatment a challenge.
- At Clarkson University in New York, a similar technology is using plasma — “tiny lightning bolts” — to break up PFAS molecules, a process that the U.S. Air Force has taken an interest in for its more than 400 contaminated bases.
- At the University of Cincinnati, researchers are having success with an iron-based catalyst that breaks down PFAS compounds and leaves behind much safer, easier-to-deal-with chemical
In addition, Michigan Technological University is examining how granular-activated carbon filters, the most common solution to dealing with PFS contamination, can be optimized for peak performance at the lowest cost.
There’s no federal-scale research initiative on cleaning up PFAS contamination. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in its PFAS Action Plan released in February, said it “plans to evaluate the effectiveness and cost of existing treatment and remediation technologies for a variety of PFAS contaminated sites and develop and test new technologies and approaches for cleaning up PFAS contamination.” The agency stated it will accomplish this by working with the Department of Defense and states, industry, universities and others to help lead the science in this area.
Some 47 sites across Michigan have PFAS levels in soil, groundwater and/or surface water that exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime healthy advisory number of 70 parts per trillion — a number above which a lifetime of exposure could be expected to harm health. Nationwide, the Pentagon last year identified 401 military sites where there are known or suspected releases of commonly used PFAS compounds known as PFOS and PFOA, through the use of firefighting foam. A recent study by the Washington-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group, citing updated federal government data, identified 610 sites in 43 U.S. states or territories known to be contaminated with PFAS, including drinking water systems serving 19 million people.