World-first technique to get rid of toxic chemicals linked to firefighting foam contamination developed

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Photo: SafetyCulture Library

A new approach to eliminating toxic chemicals linked to firefighting foam contamination has been developed by researchers at the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE).

The new approach will break down potentially harmful contaminants that have been detected at firefighter-training locations, including airports and other aviation facilities.

Per- and poly-flourinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are extremely stable chemical compounds, which give them very useful properties for multiple industrial uses, including in firefighting foams, nonstick cookware, food packaging, insecticides, and waterproof and fire-resistant fabric. However, this same property also means they don’t break down easily and therefore accumulate in the environment. They are currently so widespread that almost all person on Earth has been exposed to PFAS has them in their blood.

The researchers used electricity to generate substances – including free radicals, which are extremely strong oxidizing agents. These substances strip of the PFAS molecules of electrons and break them down into smaller and safer components.

This approach, called pfasCARE, is not limited to PFAS. This can also be used to treat almost all organic contaminants. The oxidizing agents are unstable and rapidly break down into harmless compounds.

“Previous iterations of this technology, which is subject to a patent application, have required expensive materials, such as diamonds, to be effective,” said Dr. Cheng Fang, lead researcher and Senior research Fellow at the University of Newcastle’s Global Centre for Environmental Remediation, CRC CARE’s partner on the project. “With pfasCARE, we have been able to use lead peroxide – a common, inexpensive industrial material to dramatically cut the cost of productions.”

CRC Care is planning to offer pfasCARE in combination with matCARE technology, a modified clay substance that irreversibly locks up PFAS.

“This is a first-world approach that will offer a complete clean-up solution for PFAS-contaminated sites, something that until now has not been available.”

PFASs have been used to improve the ability of firefighting foam to smother fire but a growing body of research has proven that PFAS can be dangerous to human health. PFSO (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) are two commonly used PFAS that are known to accumulate in animal and human tissue, including the liver and blood. PFAS has been linked to bladder and liver cancer, endocrine disruption, and developmental and reproductive toxicity, including neonatal mortality, and are potentially lethal to animals.

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