Engineers at the University of British Columbia have developed a new water treatment that removes “forever chemicals” from drinking water safely, efficiently – and for good.
Forever chemicals, formally known as PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances), are a large group of substances that make certain products non-stick or stain-resistant. These chemicals are found in a range of everyday products, including food packaging, clothing, cosmetics, and toilet paper.
Research links PFAS to a wide range of health problems, including hormonal disruption, cardiovascular disease, cancers, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, liver damage, asthma, allergies, and reduced vaccine response in children. For most people, exposure is through food and consumer products, but they can also be exposed to drinking water – particularly if they live in areas with contaminated water sources.
To overcome these problems, researchers have developed a unique adsorbing material that is capable of trapping and holding all the PFAS present in the water supply. These PFAS are then destroyed using special electrochemical and photochemical techniques developed by the researchers.
There are various water treatments currently on the market, such as activated carbon and ion exchange systems which are widely used in homes and industry. But they do not effectively capture all the different PFAS, or they require longer treatment time, explained Dr. Madjid Mohseni, UBC chemical and biological engineering professor, who developed the new technology.
“Our adsorbing media captures up to 99% of PFAS particles and can also be regenerated and potentially reused. This means that when we scrub off the PFAS from these materials, we do not end up with more highly toxic solid waste that will be another major environmental challenge,” Dr. Mohseni said.
Researchers say their technology is particularly beneficial for people living in smaller communities who lack the resources to implement the most advanced and expensive solutions that could capture PFAS. These can also be used in the form of decentralized and in-home water treatments.
The team is now working on scaling up the technology in a real-world application. The results from these real-world field studies will help researchers further optimize the technology and have it ready as products that municipalities, industries, and individuals can use to eliminate PFAS in their water.
- Fatemeh Asadi Zeidabadi, Ehsan Banayan Esfahani, Sean T. McBeath, Kristian L. Dubrawski, Madjid Mohseni. Electrochemical degradation of PFOA and its common alternatives: Assessment of key parameters, roles of active species, and transformation pathway. Chemosphere, 2023; DOI: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2023.137743