In The ‘Forever’ Chemicals Debate, Look For Helpers

Jan. 16, 2020

Last night in my water-aerobics class the discussion turned to nefarious players in the chemical industry -- pretty cerebral stuff while water walking across the pool. My classmate Terry had just seen the documentary “The Devil We Know,” which takes an in-depth look at Teflon. He was outraged that DuPont knew the chemical caused damage to lab animals but continued to market it to the public. I don’t blame him. But I also cover the industry that bonded carbon to fluorine in chemical chains to form polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), so I mostly listened; there wasn’t much I could add or clarify.

The thought that there are “forever” chemicals out there that never go away begs the question why? Why do we need these chemicals? I remember back in the 1980s my parents were ecstatic over non-stick cookware and stain-resistant carpets. It made their lives easier. It made millions of lives easier. The majority of folks never questioned the tradeoff for that ease. They never questioned the impact. That started to change when the effects of the compounds began to manifest themselves in cancer clusters and environmental distress near manufacturing plants pumping out waste from these processes.

Sometimes it feels like I’m on the wrong side of the debate. I know the bad plays overshadow so many good contributions but bad news travels farther and for good reason. Then I’m reminded of a Mister Rogers’ quote: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Today I stumbled upon helpers via the article "Scientists Fight Back Against Toxic "Forever" Chemicals" in Wired. In the article it says, “But here’s a shred of optimism: Some new technologies show promise in breaking those ultra-strong carbon-fluorine bonds, which means the compounds known as “forever” chemicals could be removed from at least some groundwater. ‘I have actually started to feel a little bit of hope,’ says Chris Higgins, an environmental engineer at the Colorado School of Mines and a PFAS expert. ‘We’re getting some technologies that seem to be working.’”

The article goes on to explain that the approach involves an electrical reaction that looks like lightning striking water. Contaminated water goes through a plasma reactor, where argon gas pushes the PFAS compounds to the surface. Electrodes above and below the surface generate plasma—a highly reactive gas made up of positive ions and free electrons—that interacts with the PFAS and breaks the carbon-fluorine bonds.

This news is by no means a panacea. As the article points out, “PFAS compounds are everywhere,” says Michelle Crimi, an environmental engineer at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, who works on emerging technology to remediate PFAS. “It’s not practical to think that we can treat every drop of water, every grain of sand, and every single molecule of air.”

But it is a start and that’s often the hardest hurdle to overcome. If science can create monsters it can hopefully eradicate them, too. And that will give my water-aerobics class more positive news to ponder as we paddle in place. 

Traci Purdum is Chemical Processing’s senior digital editor. Her hobbies include debating heavy topics while exercising and always looking for helpers. You can email her at [email protected]

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