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When it comes to long term toxicity, forever chemicals [PFAS] are in the same category as lead, which is why the discovery of a new process of elimination is turning heads. The process causes certain PFAS to fall apart, resulting in benign end products. PFAS are a range of chemicals that have been in use since the 1940s, and are very difficult to get rid of. They cannot be eaten by bacteria, incinerated with fire or diluted by water. Even if buried underground they will leach into the soil, creating problems for future generations.
Now, Northwestern University chemists have done what seemed impossible, and developed a method of dispensing with PFAS. The method uses common reagents that work in low temperatures and are inexpensive. A simple technique which causes two of the major classes of PFAS compounds to fall apart. The process results in harmless end products with no risk to humans, animals or the environment.
Even the tiniest amount of PFAS exposure can have negative health effects, and as the chemical does not break down, a solution is definitely needed. The research team found a weakness in the PFAS compounds that could be its downfall. PFAS contains a long tail of unyielding carbon-fluorine bonds, at one end of the molecule, there is a charged group that frequently contains charged oxygen atoms. This head group was heated in dimethyl sulfoxide with common reagent sodium hydroxide. The process decapitated the head group, leaving behind a reactive tail.
This caused a cluster of reactions, including spitting out fluorine atoms to form fluoride, which is the safest form of fluorine. The discovery has enabled a deeper understanding of PFAS and opened up ways to tackle it. Although this is an exciting breakthrough, it deals with a limited number of compounds and there are more than 12,000 others.
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