On Thursday, August 18th, researchers at Northwestern University published a study showing that PFAS can be destroyed using two relatively harmless chemicals: dimethyl sulfoxide, a chemical approved as a medication for bladder pain syndrome and sodium hydroxide or lye, a chemical used to make soap. PFAS are a class of synthetic chemicals used to manufacture consumer products that can linger permanently in the air, water and soil and are referred to as ‘forever chemicals.’ These chemicals are associated with high cholesterol, low birth weight, thyroid disease and an increased risk of certain cancers.
Previously, the only operational way to break down PFAS was to expose the particles to extremely high temperatures, sometimes above 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit in an incinerator. But that energy-intensive process could still release harmful chemicals into the environment. This new method appears to be more energy-efficient and safer. The Northwestern scientists added PFAS molecules to a lye and dimethyl sulfoxide solution and exposed it to temperatures of up to 248 degrees Fahrenheit. The chemicals were degraded into fluoride ions and other harmless byproducts.
“One specific portion of these molecules falls off and sets off a cascade of reactions that ultimately breaks these PFAS compounds down to relatively benign products,” says William Dichtel, a professor of chemistry at Northwestern University who co-authored the study.