As the PFAS crisis grows ever more evident, a lot of people put their faith in clean-up techniques, hoping that some miracle innovation will appear and save the day.
Hate to break it to you but… it won’t. Cleaning up “forever chemicals” from already polluted soil and waterways will never solve the problem. Not by itself.
Don’t get us wrong, PFAS remediation in general is a very good thing. There are so many PFAS-polluted sites out there that urgently need to be cleaned up to limit the pollution. And due to all the years of toxic release, this is something we will need for a long time.
Relying on remediation technologies is like relying on bulletproof vests to deal with gun violence
But relying on remediation technologies to solve the PFAS crisis is like relying on bulletproof vests to come to grips with gun violence. It doesn’t deal with the root cause. You might even say it misses the real target (sorry for bad pun!).
All right, enough with the analogies. Here are three reasons why we’ll never be able to rely solely on clean-ups to solve the PFAS crisis:
1. Technologies can’t remove all of the PFAS
Let’s get one thing straight, PFAS remediation techniques are pretty limited in what they can do. Available technologies are mainly useful for lowering high concentrations of PFAS. Eliminating PFAS completely from an area is, unfortunately, practically impossible.
There are many remediation technologies out there but most of them work in two steps: First, you concentrate the PFAS in a defined volume of soil, sludge or water and then you treat the volume in different ways with the aim to destroy the chemicals.
Another common strategy, which is often referred to as remediation, doesn’t try to eliminate the “forever chemicals”. Instead, it seeks to capture the PFAS on the polluted site and prevent the chemicals from reaching neighbouring areas and waterways. But for how long? There are no long-term studies to clarify this.
Whichever way you go about it, it’s paramount to verify that all “forever chemicals” really are gone. Many of the available methods were developed to tackle specific types of well-known PFAS chemicals — such as PFOA and PFOS. But even if these two chemicals are gone, they’ve probably degraded to other PFAS molecules, including gases escaping into the atmosphere.
2. We can only treat so much
Remediation technologies are useful to clean specific, limited and defined volumes of soil, water or sludge from PFAS. But there are many places where these methods won’t work. For example, how would you remove PFAS from rain or the bloodstreams of wildlife and humans?
These “forever chemicals” are so embedded in our environment that PFAS clean-ups just won’t be enough to deal with the problem. At least not by themselves. In case-specific instances, remediation may work well but we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that we will be able to get rid of all of the toxic PFAS chemicals already embedded in our ecosystems.
The production and use of “forever chemicals” is the root of the problem and there’s only one way to deal with it
Apart from this, the sheer number of polluted sites and the potential costs of the remediations really limit the positive impact of these clean-ups. Earlier this year, a large newsroom investigation revealed that Europe alone has over 17,000 PFAS-contaminated sites. The cost of treating these sites would end up at a mind-boggling €2,000 billion, according to our own research.
3. PFAS will continue to be pumped out
Coming back to the gun violence metaphor, the only way to truly handle the problem is to deal with the root cause. It won’t matter how much PFAS we remove from the environment if we keep pumping more out.
Until we limit the production and use of these substances, the pollution levels in the environment (which have already surpassed the planetary boundaries) will only increase and create further damage.
This is the absolute most important reason why we can’t rely on remediation techniques alone to solve the PFAS crisis. The production and use of “forever chemicals” is the root of the problem and there’s only one way to deal with it.
In general, there are two ways to treat PFAS-polluted sites:
First, you concentrate the PFAS in a defined volume of soil, sludge or water. Soil and sludge can be washed in different steps to then be able to do a removal treatment on the washing water. To concentrate PFAS in water, there are various types of filters and absorbents to use. It is also possible to use the fact that PFAS foam easily and concentrate the chemicals to the top foam layer. The exact technique needs to be case-specific. The physiochemical properties of the water or soil as well as the type of PFAS, all need to be considered.
Regarding the actual destruction of the PFAS, then heating the chemicals to a temperature above 350°C is a common practice. The use of soundwaves (sonication), supercritical (highly pressurized) water and electrochemical processes are also used for this purpose.
The other common technology is called immobilisation. This method does not aim to destroy the chemicals but instead, as the name suggests, immobilise them. By injecting a certain absorbent into contaminated soil, PFAS leakage to neighbouring areas and waterways can be prevented. This has become a common way to tackle heavily PFAS-polluted military training sites in, for example, Australia and the United States.