Read the full study by Shilai Hao et al. (Environmental Science Technology)
The widespread use of aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) for firefighting activities (e.g., fire training to extinguish fuel-based fires at aircraft facilities) has led to extensive groundwater and soil contamination by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) that are highly recalcitrant to destruction using conventional treatment technologies. This study reports on the hydrothermal alkaline treatment of diverse PFASs present in AFFFs. Quantitative and semiquantitative high-resolution mass spectrometry analyses of PFASs demonstrate a rapid degradation of all 109 PFASs identified in two AFFFs (sulfonate- and fluorotelomer-based formulations) in water amended with an alkali (e.g., 1–5 M NaOH) at near-critical temperature and pressure (350 °C, 16.5 MPa). This includes per- and polyfluoroalkyl acids and a range of acid precursors. Most PFASs were degraded to nondetectable levels within 15 min, and the most recalcitrant perfluoroalkyl sulfonates were degraded within 30 min when treated with 5 M NaOH. 19F NMR spectroscopic analysis and fluoride ion analysis confirm the near-complete defluorination of PFASs in both dilute and concentrated AFFF mixtures, and no stable volatile organofluorine species were detected in reactor headspace gases by the gas chromatography–mass spectrometry analysis. These findings indicate a significant potential for application of hydrothermal treatment technologies to manage PFAS waste streams, including on-site treatment of unused AFFF chemical stockpiles, investigation-derived wastes, and concentrated source zone materials.