Scientists Find a New Technique for Breaking Down ‘Forever Chemicals’

The man-made toxins are everywhere and linked to numerous health problems

Firefighters use foam to extinguish a fire on a train car
Firefighting foam can contain 'forever chemicals,' which are in many products including food packaging and nonstick cookware. These compounds accumulate in air, soil and water. Thomas Lohnes / Getty Images

Scientists have come up with a new method for destroying a group of long-lasting, human-made chemicals linked to a litany of health problems.

These chemicals are called PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, but they’ve also earned the moniker “forever chemicals” for how difficult they are to remove from the environment.

In a new study, published last week in the journal Science, researchers destroyed PFAS by mixing them with water, a soap ingredient and a common solvent. When they boiled the solution, most of the PFAS broke down into harmless byproducts in a matter of hours, and the rest broke down within days, according to the New York TimesCarl Zimmer.

The new technique only destroys some types of PFAS. But it could be simpler and cheaper than current methods for degrading the chemicals, according to Science’s Robert F. Service.

“This is the first time I’ve seen a degradation mechanism where I thought, ‘this could actually make a difference,’” Shira Joudan, an environmental chemist at York University in Toronto, Canada, who wasn’t involved in the study, tells Nature NewsGiorgia Guglielmi.

PFAS have been used in industry and consumer products since the 1940s. They’ve been added into food packaging, nonstick cookware, furniture, cosmetics and other items. To manufacturers, these chemicals were an attractive choice: They don’t react with other molecules, so they repel water and grease, writes Gizmodo’s Lauren Leffer.

“The chemicals were originally designed by companies to be stable—that was a feature, but once they get into the environment, it’s a flaw,” Joudan tells Nature News.

Manufacturing facilities have released PFAS into the air, and companies have dumped the chemicals in rivers, where they can last for generations, per the Times. Now, the United States has almost 3,000 PFAS-contaminated sites, according to Science. “We’ve really polluted the whole world with this stuff,” William Dichtel, co-author of the new study and a chemist at Northwestern University, tells the Times.

Since PFAS don’t break down on their own, they accumulate in drinking water, soil and air and eventually make their way into our bodies, per Gizmodo. One study estimates that PFAS can be found in the blood of 97 percent of Americans.

Scientists have tied low chronic levels of PFAS exposure to a number of health problems, including increased risk of cancer, liver damage, low birth weight and reduced immunity, according to the Times.

Researchers have long been looking for effective, inexpensive and safe ways to get rid of the chemicals. They can be filtered out of water, but if they’re then put in a landfill, they’ll eventually leach into the soil, per Science. Scientists have tried incinerating PFAS, but this expensive strategy still allows some of the chemicals to survive and escape into the air, according to the Times.

While the new PFAS-destroying technique is promising, it’s not a silver bullet, experts say. There are thousands of types of PFAS, and the method worked for just one major class of them, per Gizmodo. And Dichtel tells the Times that a lot of work needs to be done before the technique can be used outside the lab.

Plus, the new method’s value is only in destroying PFAS that have already been filtered out of water. It “would really not be good” to just dump the PFAS-dissolving soap and solvent into the water supply, says chemist Brittany Trang, the study’s lead researcher, to Gizmodo.

Still, this is a step toward a PFAS solution. “It’s a neat method; it’s different from other ones that have been tried,” Chris Sales, an environmental engineer at Drexel University who was not involved in the study, tells Science NewsJude Coleman. “The biggest question is, how could this be adapted and scaled up?”