By: Sonya Lunder, Senior Toxics Policy Advisor at Sierra Club

I was very excited to read news about an innovative model to destroy certain classes of PFAS chemicals published last month in Science. PFAS are notoriously persistent and hard to identify, but stories about new PFAS destruction tools using heat, pressure, even fungi, have begun to appear weekly. In this case, lead researcher Brittany Trang of Northwestern University elegantly harnessed physical and chemical properties of PFAS to achieve low temperature destruction of PFAS-carboxylates when heated in a common lab solvent, DMSO.

As a person actively campaigning to halt the reckless and unregulated disposal of PFAS waste and halt the incineration of PFAS-foams by the U.S. military, I am a huge supporter of the potential for safer destruction technologies for concentrated PFAS waste. The Northwestern team’s research reminds us that many solutions can ultimately replace today’s inadequate and unjust options (which for PFAS are primarily incineration, landfilling and deep well injection). This innovative thinking – coupled with funding and stronger waste disposal rules – could lead to technologies that could safely destroy some of the nation’s stockpiles of highly toxic and persistent wastes, rather than shipping it to overburdened communities living near historic disposal sites. 

But in a world where we are all too eager to share some “good news” about the PFAS crisis, the story spread like PFAS-contaminated foam on Lake Michigan on a windy day. The New York Times and Washington Post used the headlines, “Eradicating the Forever from ‘Forever Chemicals’” and “Forever Chemicals No More,” and stories generally overstated the careful explanations of the lead researchers themselves, and may have confused the general public.

In reality, these lab experiments have some major limitations that mean they’re not quick or universal fixes to the PFAS contamination problem. First, these techniques will likely take years to refine, develop, and scale into workable treatment systems that can operate in the field to destroy concentrated PFAS waste. Second, the Northwestern team’s technique works for PFAS-carboxylates (think PFOA, PFHxA, and PFBA), but it remains to be seen if a similar process could be developed for PFAS-sulphonates (think PFOS, PFHxS and PFBS). In reality, PFAS contamination is usually a mixture of many individual chemicals. Another issue is that, while the other chemicals used in the reactions and produced as byproducts may be relatively safe compared to PFAS, they have some of their own health and exposure concerns. Researchers will need to investigate the lifecycle impacts of any solvents used to degrade PFAS, and the fate of any waste products generated. One such product in the Science paper is TFA or trifluoroacetic acid, a very short chain yet persistent PFAS chemical that has been observed to be increasing in the environment. 

Ultimately, while this research is truly exciting, it is far from being a true solution to the PFAS crisis. No filtration or disposal technology is available to effectively remove the legacy of PFAS that lingers in our bodies, in amniotic fluid, falling as rainwater, washing into rivers, and accumulating the fish we harvest or other food we eat. 
We must make every effort to halt the production and use of PFAS in virtually all processes and products as quickly as possible. And as that happens we’ll need to contain the waste that continues to spread from historically contaminated sites and safely destroy chemical stockpiles (including massive quantities of unused and unusable AFFF foam). Finally we must support people with the highest levels of PFAS exposure, including workers, people living near production and waste sites, and those who drink polluted water or eat highly contaminated wild foods.