Why are there PFAS in my household’s consumer products?
- Carpeting and upholstery that resist staining
- Outdoor clothing that allows air through, but keeps rain out
- A frying pad that wipes clean easily
- A cheeseburger that doesn’t stick to its wrapper
- Face cream that is waterproof, long-lasting and spreads smoothly
These minor miracles of modern life are brought to you in part by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). This is a class of manufactured chemicals that has been used in a widespread range of consumer and industrial products. And as we’ll see, it’s that “widespread” use of PFAS that is causing big implications for human health and the natural environment.
But the fact remains that PFAS compounds are tremendously useful. They’re mostly used as surfactants – applied to the surface of a product, they help repel oil and water. They help keep products clean, repel water, and improve the functionality of many products.
In this post, we’ll look at the impacts of PFAS, how they’re being managed at present, and how Onvector is part of the solution to the PFAS puzzle.
What’s so bad about PFAS?
Three factors make PFAS a problem that needs to be solved urgently:
Persistent: PFAS are called “forever chemicals” partly because their molecules contain a carbon-fluorine bond, one of the strongest known to molecular science. This means that they tend to not break down easily in any natural process, meaning that they may be with us for literally thousands of years. This is why they’re often called “forever chemicals.”
Everywhere: To find the nearest source of PFAS, just consider your own body. Your bloodstream almost certainly contains some PFAS. So does the water you drink, the food you eat and even the air you breathe. There’s virtually no place in the world that’s PFAS-free.
Harmful: Scientists are only now coming to grips with the dangers of PFAS. According to the US-EPA, current peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that exposure to certain levels of PFAS may lead to:
- Reproductive effects such as decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women
- Developmental effects or delays in children, including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, bone variations, or behavioral changes
- Increased risk of some cancers, including prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers.
- Reduced ability of the body’s immune system to fight infections, including reduced vaccine response
- Interference with the body’s natural hormones
- Increased cholesterol levels and/or risk of obesity
Accordingly, several government agencies have put PFAS in their regulatory cross-hairs, putting in place challenging standards for PFAS impacts. The US-EPA is considering adding some kinds of PFAS to their list of materials falling under CERCLA, also known as Superfund. Some state and local governments are not waiting for the federal government to act but are putting their own requirements in place.
What’s being done about PFAS contamination?
Part of the solution to manage the impacts of PFAS is to work on one of those three factors – the “everywhere” part. Modern landfills are a good place to start. All those disused rain jackets, pizza boxes, face cream tubes and other products generally end up in a landfill. And of all the places they could be, a landfill is probably the best place for them.
A modern landfill is lined with an impervious barrier underneath, so that any liquids in it don’t escape to the surrounding soil and groundwater.
Landfills do produce “leachate,” which comes from precipitation that flows through the landfill, picking up problematic constituents (like PFAS …) on its way. Current landfills have an elaborate pipeline network to gather all this leachate together for treatment.
And therein lies the problem. Many landfills pipeline or truck their leachate to municipal sewage treatment plants. But here, the “persistent” nature of PFAS becomes a problem, because most municipal plants are designed to treat sewage, not industrial materials like PFAS. There is a risk that by the leachate route, PFAS impacts may reach the wider world.
How Onvector helps deal with the PFAS puzzle
It’s becoming clear that dealing with PFAS in landfill leachate will be a two-stage process. The first uses one of several methods – foam fractionation, ion exchange, and reverse osmosis – to reduce the volume of leachate needing treatment.
Then the second stage takes over – the challenging task of destroying the molecular bond of PFAS. Methods tried include incineration, supercritical water oxidation, and electrochemical oxidation.
The method Onvector uses is plasma vortex technology, which destroys PFAS molecules by harnessing the fourth state of matter, plasma. Within the plasma vortex reactor, a voltage gradient is applied between two electrodes, through an external power supply. This creates an electric field that strips electrons from the inflowing gas molecules, creating charged ions and releasing a plasma discharge. The ions, which are charged particles, are highly chemically reactive, and are capable of breaking down PFAS molecules. This breaks down PFAS into harmless byproducts like fluoride, sulfate, carbon dioxide and water. This is the process that Onvector uses.
Our plasma vortex technology is reliable, energy efficient and cost effective. To learn more about Onvector’s technology, click here.