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Tool Takes Aim At “Forever Chemicals”

March 16, 2022
A powerful mass spectrometer is helping identify complex PFAS compounds in the environment

Sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the body, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been used by industry and in consumer products for nearly 80 years. Thousands of PFAS are present in our soil, water, food — plus household cleaning chemicals, personal care products and more.

Concern about PFAS being widespread in both production and use — along with their ability to move and persist in the environment, prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Atlanta, to perform numerous surveys; results show most people in the United States have been exposed to some PFAS.

Most known exposures are relatively low, but some can be high, particularly when people are exposed to a concentrated source over long periods of time. Certain PFAS chemicals can accumulate in the body over time.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), current scientific research suggests exposure to high levels of certain PFAS may lead to adverse health outcomes. However, the agency also notes research is still ongoing to determine how different levels of exposure to different PFAS can lead to a variety of health effects. Decreased fertility, developmental delays, increased risk of certain cancers and interference with the body’s natural hormones are all possible effects from exposure. (For more on EPA efforts, see: PFAS: One Size Does Not Fit All.")

Research also is underway to better understand the health effects associated with low levels of exposure over long periods of time, especially in children.

The EPA Council on PFAS, established in April 2021, has been developing a strategy and associated timelines to protect public health and the environment from the impacts of PFAS. Its strategy includes five principles: understanding the lifecycle of PFAS; getting upstream of the problem by preventing them from entering the environment in the first place; holding polluters accountable; prioritizing protection of disadvantaged communities; and ensuring science-based decision making always is used.

However, health effects associated with exposure to PFAS are difficult to specify considering the sheer number of these chemicals and potentially varying effects and toxicity levels; most studies focus on a limited number of better known PFAS compounds.

Now, researchers at Colorado State University (CSU), Fort Collins, Colo., are using a powerful chemical analysis tool — the 21 Tesla Fourier-transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometer (21T FT-ICR MS) in the NSF-funded National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (MagLab) at CSU’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences — to help unravel the complexities of PFAS. CSU says the 21T FT-ICR MS can differentiate between individual chemical compounds more accurately than any other instrument.

“It’s powerful enough to be able to see all of these different PFAS molecules, but it’s also powerful enough to pick them out of environmental samples that contain many thousands of natural compounds,” says Robert Young, a CSU alumnus and director of the Chemical Analysis and Instrumentation Laboratory at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, N.M.

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The samples analyzed for their recent study came from PFAS-contaminated sites, and each contained about 10,000–30,000 compounds — numerous human-made chemicals against a background of natural organic material. The MagLab’s instrument measures mass so precisely the researchers can determine the elemental makeup for many compounds present.

“We’re not only attempting to resolve the chemical complexity of PFAS, we’re also opening doors for researchers who want to look at treatment, environmental fate and transport, and toxicology,” notes Jens Blotevogel, a research assistant professor in CSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “This is giving people the strongest possible magnifying glass to unravel these processes.”

The researchers also want to study how the compounds change in the environment. Some, they believe, may go from harmless to harmful when they degrade or are mixed with other compounds.

“The long-term goal is to help identify these things so other people know what to look for. As soon as we know what to look for, we can focus on understanding the health and environmental impacts, and prioritize treatment or regulatory solutions,” adds Young.

The team is cataloging their findings in a database of PFAS compounds so others can utilize their results. They have published a PFAS library with a report detailing the new analytical method based on their work to date for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program.

More about their work is published in a recent issue of Environmental Science and Technology.

Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's editor at large. You can email him at [email protected].

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