firefighter wearing a full face gas mask

The Hazards of Forever Chemicals and a New Method to Destroy Them

“Forever chemicals” is a term coined for a class of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These ‘forever chemicals’ are nearly impossible to destroy and persist in the environment, hence the term. Because PFAS can resist water, stains, and grease, they have been used in many everyday products, including workout clothing, non-stick cookware, food packaging, and firefighter turnout gear. These chemicals have been linked to several health issues, including certain cancers, thyroid disease, and even high cholesterol. PFAS have been detected in drinking water systems across the United States, creating serious environmental and health concerns.

The Effects on Firefighters

As our first line of defense against structure fires and wildfires, firefighters are essential. Currently, all three layers of firefighter turnout gear is impregnated with PFAS to repel water and reduce the risk of moisture related skin burns. Some long chain PFAS are known to increase the risks of liver and kidney cancer. Recently, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) advised all firefighters to only wear their turnout gear when necessary to reduce their exposure to PFAS as much as possible. The IAFF went as far as recommending that all gear be sealed in a container or bag when not in use and that people wash their hands after touching it.

These recommendations are based on research that indicates that PFAS can leach out of firefighter gear and into their bloodstream. While these claims are hard to quantify, the results of this research warrant further investigation into the risks. In the past, some firefighters may have been exposed to PFAS contained in firefighting foam. Longer chain perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluoro octane sulfonic acid (PFOS) incorporation in foams were phased out in 2001 and now short-chain PFAS are used.

The primary PFAS risk to firefighters comes through exposure to the combustion products (smoke) of substances such as stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, paints or varnishes, and other water-resistant and nonstick materials.

A focus on using short-chain PFAS instead of longer-chain PFAS such as PFOS and PFOA will help to mitigate the risks of exposure to these unnecessary carcinogens until we can eventually eliminate the long chain use in consumer products. In addition, some strides have been made in the destruction of these forever chemicals to remove them from the environment as much as possible.

New Method of Destroying Forever Chemicals

Chemists from the University of California, Los Angeles and Northwestern University have discovered a relatively simple and practical method of destroying forever chemicals using sodium hydroxide, commonly referred to as lye and used in soap making, and dimethyl sulfoxide, a common organic solvent. The chemists found that mixing these two substances in water and heating them to 176 to 248 degrees Fahrenheit can break the bonds of perfluoro carboxylic acids, or PFCAS, which are the largest class of PFAS. Once the strong bonds of PFCAS are broken, fluoride ions and carbon-containing byproducts are left behind. The fluoride ions can then easily be captured.

This method is relatively mild compared to the current methods of PFAS destruction, which include incineration, supercritical water oxidation, and electrochemical degradation. These other methods can be energy intensive, use harsh chemicals, or create byproducts that are hard to capture.

The Future of Forever Chemicals

While it is clear that long-chain PFAS creates a huge concern for people and the environment, much research and innovation has been done in order to come up with safer alternatives. The federal government recognizes the extreme health risk of PFAS in drinking water, even at very low, near-zero levels. Therefore, in June of this year; they lowered the maximum allowed limit of forever chemicals in water and passed a $1 billion bipartisan infrastructure grant funding to address the PFAS and other emerging contaminants in drinking water.

If you are in need of a custom formulation to help destroy forever chemicals in your products or for safe alternative chemicals solutions in place of forever chemicals, that you can utilize for your products, please contact us here at Noah Chemicals. Our chemical experts have over 100 years of combined experience creating custom formulations and Chemicals Services in multiple industries. To get started, please call us at 210-691-2000.

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