Finally, a solution to fight the eternal polluters
Who are the eternal polluters: perfluoroids, a family of prolific and versatile chemicals, are the delight of industry; they have become the nightmare of the environment.
Perfluorinated chemicals in our manufactured goods pollute even the polar regions. We cannot eliminate these pollutants that are said to be “eternal”.
However, scientists have found a solution by destroying certain pollutants, called “eternal” because of their extreme resistance and toxicity, which are present in many everyday objects and can cause serious health problems.
The method, which requires relatively low temperatures and so-called common reagents, was developed by chemists in the United States and China whose work was published in the journal Science, offering a potential solution to a persistent problem for the environment, livestock and humans.
!940 is a difficult year since the beginning of the second world war but also the development of PFAS (per and polyfluoroalkylated), which disintegrate in an extremely slow way, and can be found in packaging, shampoos, non-stick pans or even make-up. Over time, they have spread into our environment: water, soil, air, groundwater, lakes and rivers. A Swedish study showed last week that rainwater was unfit for consumption everywhere on Earth due to high levels of PFAS.
Several studies have shown that exposure to PFAS can affect fertility and fetal development. It can also lead to increased risk of obesity or certain cancers (prostate, kidney and testicles) and increased cholesterol levels. The current methods to degrade these pollutants require powerful treatments, such as incineration at very high temperatures or irradiation by ultrasound.
Their ability to become almost indestructible is linked to the long carbon-fluorine bonds that compose them, among the strongest in organic chemistry. However, the researchers were able to identify a weakness in some types of PFAS: at one end of their molecule, a group of oxygen atoms can be targeted by a common solvent and reagent at temperatures averaging 80 to 120 degrees Celsius.
Whenever this happens, “it causes the entire molecule to collapse in a cascade of complex reactions,” explains William Dichtel of Northwestern University, one of the study’s authors. The scientists also used powerful computational methods to map the quantum mechanics behind these chemical reactions. Work that can eventually be used to improve the method.
The current report focused on 10 PFAS, including a major pollutant called GenX, which contaminated the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. But there are more than 12,000 “eternal chemicals,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“There are other types (of PFAS) that don’t have the same Achilles heel, but each has its own weakness,” William Dichtel points out. “If we can identify it, then we will know how to activate it to destroy it.”