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From magnets to lawsuits, here’s how we can fix the chemicals problem for good

origin 1Forever chemicals are everywhere. Here’s what we can do to fix the problem. © canva

What do drinking water, polar bears and mother’s milk have in common?

That might sound like the start of a bad joke, but it’s not: they all contain’chemistry forever.’

These persistent substances of human origin, also known as per- and polyfluorinated alkyls, or PFAs, do not decompose in environment.

The chemicals have long been valued for their non-stick properties. But a growing body of research is showing how harmful they can be to the human body.

So how bad is the problem and what can we do about it?

Where are Forever Chemicals located and what are the health risks?

They are more than 4,700 chemistry forever on the market. They are non-stick and stain resistant, making them common ingredients in cookware, clothing, fire foam, electronics, cosmetics, and industrial manufacturing processes.

The chemicals contain chains of linked carbon and fluorine atoms, one of the strongest bonds there is.

The unbreakable bond is what makes them so popular, explains Clare Cavers, environmental charity senior project manager Fidra.

origin 1Forever chemicals vomits into bodies of water from chemical factories.Canva

“The strength of that carbon bond makes them really good at what they do, acting like an oil or water repellentor as a surfactant (a substance like a detergent that makes a liquid easier to spread),” she says.

“But [the bond] it also means that they persist in nature – they accumulate.

“And they have a really big impact on human cells and wildlife.”

The chemicals have been linked to a wide range of health problems. These include, but are not limited to, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, cancer, and impaired response to vaccines.

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What can we do for chemicals forever?

The list of health problems caused by Forever Chemicals is long, but the list of places where they are found is even longer.

They are everywhere: studies have discovered them in blood, fishinstallations, breast milkdrinking water, soil and embryos – and this is just the tip of the iceberg (icebergs, incidentally, are also full of PFAS).

Thankfully, scientists are hard at work on ways to destroy chemicals forever, with multiple new approaches under development.

Scientific solutions for chemicals forever

The hydrogen and UV light force the chemicals to break down

In December 2022, researchers at the University of California used hydrogen and UV light to destroy two types of toxic PFAS chemicals in tap water.

“Promising” technology eliminates 95% of chemicals in less than an hour.

When a contaminated source is infused with hydrogen, the water releases electrons weakening the tight molecular bonds that bind PFASs.

Pulses of high-energy UV light accelerate this reaction, causing stubborn chemicals to break down.

It’s a “one-two punch,” say the UCR researchers.

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The magnets “pull” the PFAS out of the water

Australian scientists have used magnets to extract chemicals directly waterfall.

Researchers at the University of Queensland covered PFAS with a magnetic solution made from fluorinated polymer absorbent. The solution coats the chemicals forever, which are then pulled out using a magnet.

In tests with small PFAS-laden samples waterfallthe team found that the technique could remove more than 95% of most PFAS molecules, including more than 99% of GenX, a particular toxic substance – within 30 seconds.

“Because our process doesn’t need electricity, it can be used in remote and off-grid communities,” said Dr. Cheng Zhang, co-author of the study.

Super-compressed water corrodes chemicals

University of Washington engineers have used “supercritical water” to destroy chemicals.

When waterfall is heated, it turns into gas. But if you apply great pressure to this superheated water, it becomes a plasma-like substance, neither liquid nor gaseous.

In plasma, water molecules act in a new way, bouncing around aggressively. This corrodes the chemicals forever.

Scientists initially developed this method to destroy chemical warfare agents, but they hope it could also be used to destroy chemicals in industrial waste forever.

origin 1Chemicals have always been found in freshwater fish.Canva

Which countries have the strictest regulatory requirements?

It’s “interesting” to watch these scientific developments unfold, says Cavers.

But there is a simpler and more effective solution: stop producing the substances altogether.

“We have to turn off the tap. Otherwise, it’s like we’re saving the sinking boat while someone is pouring more water,” he explains.

Around the world, governments are coming under increasing pressure to regulate PFAS.

The US Environmental Protection Agency recently advised that drinking water should not contain PFAS at a concentration greater than 0.2 parts per trillion. This is more than a thousand-fold decrease from previous guidelines, which set a limit of 70 parts per trillion.

In October 2022, 46 European civil societies invited the European Commission Phase out all PFAS use in consumer products (e.g. food packaging, cosmetics, clothing) by 2025 and all PFAS production and use by 2030.

Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, countries with strict domestic rules on PFAS, have jointly presented a proposal to have toxic substances restricted throughout the European Union. It should be released within this month.

Individual jurisdictions are bringing about positive developments.

“California, for example, has banned the use of PFAS in fabrics within the next two years,” says Cavers.

“In Denmark, they were banned food packaging. So some of these restrictions can be introduced very quickly.”

origin 1Chemicals have long been linked to a variety of health issues. Canva

Can Litigation Help Eliminate Chemicals From Our Lives Forever?

Phased out chemistry forever it is a moral imperative. But for chemical companies, it could also be financial.

As awareness of the potential health risks of PFAS grows, ordinary citizens and governments are filing lawsuits against the manufacturers.

Last year, 47 asset managers – responsible for €7.7 trillion of investments – wrote to more than 50 companies urging them to phase out chemicals.

“We encourage you to lead, not be led, by phasing out and replacing these chemicals,” their letter reads.

The government of California sues 18 chemical manufacturers for knowingly marketing toxic chemicals.

“It’s financially smart for companies to stay one step ahead of litigation and regulation. Why not make the changes before it becomes law? says cavers.

“Change is coming. Not fast enough, but it’s coming.”