WASHINGTON – Today, chemists at Northwestern University revealed a new method to destroy toxic “eternal chemicals” known as PFAS. The new method is encouraging because it does not require high temperatures or high energy due to PFOA and GenX break down into “benign end products”.
“These results are very promising,” said Tasha Stoiber, Ph.D., senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. “This destruction method could potentially be applied to degrade and remove PFAS, but it will take valuable time for any technology to move from the lab to real-world application.
“This research also highlights how complex and challenging persistence is for this class of chemicals. We have yet to find an effective method of disposal,” she added.
In 2020, EWG scientists concluded that the combustion, disposal and flushing of PFAS wastes all contribute to environmental contamination.
Communities with PFAS are increasingly looking for new treatment technologies, but so far all methods have produced PFAS-laden waste. With current disposal options, concentrated PFAS is likely to return to the environment, requiring disposal once again. As the amount of PFAS in the environment increases, and with it the need to dispose of this waste, how it is handled at disposal sites has come under greater scrutiny.
In June, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new lifetime health advisories for four PFAS compounds. These guidelines provide information about contaminants in drinking water that can harm people throughout their lives.
The four opinions are:
- 0.004 parts per trillion, or ppt, for PFOA
- 0.02 ppt for PFOS
- 10 ppt for GenX chemicals
- 2,000 ppt for PFBS
Previously, the EPA set an advisory for PFOA and PFOS of 70 ppt. The agency still has not established an enforceable national drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS.
“The EPA’s dramatic new health risk assessment for PFAS is a stark reminder of how toxic they are to human health at very low levels,” said Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., vice president of scientific investigations at EWG.
“As new studies are published, scientists are discovering that this family of chemicals is far more toxic than previously thought. More research is needed on new technologies for destroying PFAS, but we also need to work to stop the release of these substances into the environment.
EWG analysis found PFOA and PFOS detected above new EPA lifetime health advisory levels in drinking water from 2,013 communities serving more than 43 million people .
Last month, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine released a report recommend that people with a history of high PFAS be offered medical testing. The report also advises clinicians to reduce their patients’ exposure to these chemicals.
The new NAS report and EPA assessment suggest that, based on studies in children and reduced vaccine response, everyone is likely exposed to PFAS at a level of potential concern and well above a safe exposure value.
Very low doses of PFAS in drinking water have been associated with immune system suppression, including interference with vaccines. These chemicals harm development and the reproductive system, with effects such as reduced birth weight and impacts on fertility; increase the risk of certain cancers; affect metabolism, such as changes in cholesterol and weight gain; and raise cholesterol and create other serious health problems.
“The common-sense solution is to immediately eliminate all unnecessary or non-essential uses of PFAS to stop any further releases into the environment,” said Melanie Benesh, EWG vice president for government affairs. “In other words, we need to turn off the PFAS pollution tap if we are to protect our bodies and the environment.”
“The EPA has taken action to address PFAS, but needs to do more to restrict industrial discharges of PFAS in air and water. The agency must also act quickly to require testing for sludge that may be contaminated with PFAS, and immediately designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under our federal cleanup laws,” she said. added.
PFAS are commonly used in thousands of manufacturing practices and in products ranging from carpets, clothing, cosmetics, nonstick cleaners and cookware to fire-fighting foams and protective equipment.
Consumers who want to limit their exposure to PFAS should avoid most products marketed as waterproof, greaseproof, or durable. They should also look for a “PFAS-free” label on products.
UPDATE: This press release has been updated. The new method destroys PFOA and GenX, not PFOS.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that enables people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy, and unique educational tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.