We May Finally Be Able to Destroy a Dreaded ‘Forever Chemical’ in Our Drinking Water
Compounds once thought indestructible were successfully broken down
In 2019, nearly two dozen water agencies in Southern California were found to have reportable levels of cancer-causing chemical compounds in their wells. By 2020, 700 agencies with similar contamination had been identified across the United States. These compounds, known as perfluorinated alkylated substances or PFAS, are dubbed “forever chemicals” because, for a long time, there was no known way to break them down.
But Sharma Yamijala, a computational chemist at the University of California, Riverside, may have just discovered a solution. After hearing about the issue at a seminar in 2019, he got to work on the problem with two colleagues at the university. The results of their project were published in the journal Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics in January.
“I thought that we should try something out to understand what’s happening,” he tells OneZero.
Since the 1940s, PFAS have been used in a wide variety of products, like food packaging, nonstick pans, paints, cleaning supplies, and even smartphones. Because they don’t break down in the environment, they get into drinking water and other living organisms, many of which we eat. Since the body can’t digest them either, they accumulate inside of us, too.
“These pollutants are very persistent,” explains Bryan Wong, one of Yamijala’s co-authors on the paper, to OneZero. “They last for a long time.”
High levels of PFAS intake are linked to cancer as well as low birth weight and thyroid hormone disruption, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
In his research, Yamijala used computer simulations to study the chemical structure of the PFAS that are the most ubiquitous in the environment: perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. The carbon-fluorine bond that acts as the backbone of these chemicals is one of the strongest bonds in organic chemistry, which is why they seem to last forever. But this is exactly what the team’s breakthrough addresses: When they exposed the compounds to excess electrons — a process called reduction — the bond with the…