Reading the news on a daily basis can be disconcerting, particularly when it concerns health-related risks. Take the recent developments in some northern New Jersey towns, where residents opened their North Jersey Records on Valentine’s Day 2016 to an article detailing elevated levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in the water supply. According to the article, PFOA is “linked to kidney and testicular cancer, as well as high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and other illnesses in a still-growing body of research. There are also probable links to low birth weight and decreased immune responses.”
Origin of Polyfluorinated Products
History has shown that accidents and failed experiments often lead to new inventions and discoveries. Many everyday products came from what initially were seen as mistakes by their inventors. Examples include the implantable pacemaker, the microwave, the inkjet printer and Velcro.
One of those inventions, Teflon, or polytetrafluoroethylene, is the compound its inventor accidentally discovered while trying to create a new refrigerator coolant. Now it famously is known as the chemical power behind the non-stick, heat-resistant cookware that earned its creator, Dr. Roy J. Plunkett, an induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Scotchgard was another accidental discovery. In 1952, an accidental spill of a fluorochemical rubber on an assistant’s tennis shoe led to the invention of the product. After exhaustive attempts to remove the spill failed, 3M scientist Patsy Sherman changed her approach from removing the spill to using the chemical as a protectant from spills. Sales of Scotchgard began in 1956, and in 1973 Sherman and co-inventor Samuel Smith received a patent for the formula.
Reinventing Social Responsibility
How times have changed. In 1999, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began an investigation into the class of chemicals used in Scotchgard after receiving information on the global distribution and toxicity of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), its key ingredient. In May 2000, under EPA pressure, 3M announced the production phase-out of PFOA, PFOS and related products.
Today, as a result of EPA pressure and mounting consumer concerns, both Teflon and Scotchgard are no longer available due to their key ingredient, PFOS. In addition, consumers have become increasingly aware and better educated about the products they use and the chemicals to which they are exposed. Consumer organizations and environmental advocates have been working diligently to keep the public informed of the growing list of hazardous materials relating to PFOA and PFOS and the extended class of polyfluorinated substances (PFAS).
This trend of environmental awareness is supported by the recent Madrid Statement, created and signed by more than 200 scientists from around the world to equip the general public with information and encourage people to take proactive measures rather than reactively struggle against something most of them know little about.
PFOA and PFOS are just two examples of manmade chemicals that are being identified in public groundwater resources and impacting lives. Environmental professionals are seeking out solutions designed to counteract the ubiquity of these contaminants and provide a level of safety for individuals, businesses and governments. They are turning to innovative solutions to combat the problem. New techniques, products and services are being designed and implemented around the world to counteract the spread of potentially dangerous substances.
In order to effectively build the resolution formulas to handle complex contamination, it is necessary to first understand the nature of the problem and chemicals in question.
According to the North Jersey Record, PFOA is “a manmade chemical used in the manufacture of stain-resistant carpets, waterproof clothing, non-stick cooking pans and other products that make life less messy, and has spread so far through the environment that it can be found everywhere from the fish in the Delaware River to polar bears in the Arctic.”
Scale & Scope
According to an August 2015 report by David Andrews, senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, nationwide testing in the U.S. indicates 6.5 million Americans in 27 states are drinking water tainted with PFOA and other related and potentially toxic PFAS chemicals. Ninety-four public water systems in the nation contain some level of these chemicals, which may cause cancer, birth defects and heart disease, and weaken the immune system.
Dr. Mariann Lloyd-Smith, a member of the working group that reviews substances for the United Nations Stockholm Convention in an effort to control some of the world’s most dangerous chemicals, claims PFOS and PFOA are “poisons without passports” due to their ability to spread throughout the world. “We already have PFOS contamination throughout the globe now,” she said.
Time for Action
Recently, researchers and scientists from across the U.S. convened at the 2016 Emerging Contaminants Summit in Westminster, Colo., to address the mitigation of contaminants such as PFOS and PFOA, which can be released into air, soil, groundwater or surface water via industrial processes, military and firefighting operations, and consumer product use.
At the inaugural summit, experts from multiple disciplines shared insights and ongoing research, including information on the use of specialized instruments such as liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC/MS) and LC-MS/MS, which detect and analyze contaminants down to the parts-per-trillion level. Using a combination of liquid chromatography with mass spectrometry, these tools have the sensitivity capabilities needed to gain more structural information on contaminants in soil and groundwater.
Once identified in the environment, the contaminants must be remediated. PFOA, PFOS and other PFAS chemicals, however, are recalcitrant in the environment and require extreme conditions to initiate chemical reactions. In fact, most physical, chemical, biological and thermal in situ remediation techniques are ineffective, particularly in preventing the spread of plumes underground.
Results from sites around the world indicate that the most common possible treatments, namely pump-and-treat and ex situ techniques, which use activated carbon filters on site, may need to be in place for decades to remediate groundwater contaminated with PFAS. In addition, pump-and-treat technologies do not address onsite risks associated with in-surface soils.
New solutions are being developed to remediate PFAS contamination. One such product is PlumeStop liquid activated carbon, an environmentally friendly, patented, in situ remediation substrate that treats contaminated groundwater and prevents the spread of contaminated plumes. Through dispersible, fast-acting, sorption-based technology, which captures and concentrates contaminants within its structure, the product lasts for decades, pulling contaminants directly from groundwater. It is composed of fine particles of activated carbon (1 to 2 µ) suspended in water through the use of organic polymer dispersion chemistry. Once in the subsurface, the material behaves as a colloidal biomatrix binding to the aquifer matrix, rapidly removing contaminants from groundwater and expediting permanent contaminant biodegradation. The key element of this technology, particularly for treating groundwater contaminated with PFOA and PFOS, is its cost-effective ability to inject an in situ barrier of colloidal activated carbon that distributes widely and evenly under low pressures in permeable channels. Cutting off migrating plumes, it absorbs PFOA and PFOS even at low concentrations and has years of sorption capacity with a single application. Higher doses or reapplications allow for extended longevity. It currently is being applied by engineering and environmental consulting firms in the U.S. and Europe.
Final Reason for Optimism
PFAS have the potential to cause significant damage to global populations and will continue to impact communities due to their widespread use and capacity to infiltrate the worldwide ecosystem. It is important now and in the years ahead to develop innovative technologies within environmental remediation techniques. A focus on effective solutions to mitigate the dangers associated with PFOA, PFOS and other PFAS contaminants is crucial.
When considering that chemical compounds both synthetic and natural make up all aspects of life, it is a mistake to succumb to fear of these substances. Humankind always has embraced the challenge of finding solutions to make life safer and more secure. The importance of discovery and advancement in scientific and technological endeavors ultimately will address the problems associated with PFAS and future challenges facing the global community.