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Can we get rid of ‘forever chemicals’? Ohio scientists research PFAS destruction

A man gestures long white pipes that run horizontally across the room.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
Warren County added membranes at its water treatment facility to soften its water and filter out PFAS. But the 'forever chemicals' don't disappear.

The water you drink goes through a lot before it comes out of your faucet.

At Warren County’s water treatment plant in southwest Ohio, deputy engineer Chris Wojnicz pointed to a series of buildings and explained the role each plays. One pumps oxygen into the water, another filters it through sand. The next stop treats it with fluoride and chlorine.

It’s a long process, Wojnicz said. And, the county just added another step: filtering out PFAS, or per-and-polyfluoroalkyl substances.

“It's hard to argue with the science that says this is a bad chemical,” Wojnicz said. “So we want to do everything we can. We want to be on the forefront of it.”

PFAS are toxic chemicals that come from the creation of a laundry list of everyday items: cookware, cosmetics, food wrappers. And long-term exposure to even just a tiny amount of the man-made chemicals can pose health risks, like decreased fertility and some types of cancer.

These chemicals have been detected in more than 50 Ohio communities’ drinking water systems. A team of scientists at the University of Dayton Research Institute is hoping to help by looking at how to eradicate these chemicals completely.

A cycle of pollution

In 2020, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency asked drinking water systems across the state to test their water for the toxic substance. Warren County was among many that found PFAS in its drinking water.

Wojnicz said the department worked fast to fix it. It added technology called membranes that soften the water and filter out contaminants. Now when they test their water, no PFAS are detected. But, he said, there’s still a problem.

“Whatever you do to treat it, it's still not gone,” he said.

A man in a gray shirt stands facing rows of long white tubes.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
Membranes filter out PFAS at the Warren County water treatment plant in Maineville.

Even though this technology filters out the chemicals, they don’t just disappear. Tasha Stoiber, a scientist with the Environmental Working Group, said oftentimes these filtered-out PFAS end up going to a landfill to be burned. But, the incinerators there aren’t strong enough to completely break them down.

“You can have products of incomplete combustion,” Stoiber said. “And those can be released into the environment and still have fragments of PFAS compounds that are now released into the air.”

It’s an endless cycle, Stoiber said. PFAS get filtered out, they get sent to the landfill, they get partially burned and then they get released right back into the environment to possibly re-contaminate soil or groundwater.

Wojnicz said, in Warren County the PFAS they remove are dumped into the Little Miami River.

“That's our concern is you're going to drop all this money into moving the problem from one place to another,” he said. “Yeah, I’m taking it out of the drinking water, but now I’m putting it in a landfill, I’m putting it up in the atmosphere or I’m putting it in the river. We can’t keep kicking it down the road.”

Potential solution

That’s where the University of Dayton Research Institute hopes to make some progress. Takahiro Yamada is on a team of scientists working to figure out what it takes to destroy these so-called ‘forever chemicals’ completely and stop the cycle of pollution.

“The problem created by our generation should be solved by our generation,” Yamada said.

His team’s solution is to heat them to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit for around two seconds. That’s about as hot as lava when it erupts from a volcano.

In a lab, a man stands in googles and blue gloves beside square incinerator.
University of Dayton Research Institute
Takahiro Yamada, at the University of Dayton Research Institute, is working to understand how to destroy PFAS chemicals completely.

Heat is just one part of the equation. PFAS aren't just one chemical, but a whole class of chemicals, and the destruction process could vary a little for each one.

Still, Yamada said they’ve made a lot of progress in the four years they’ve been researching. He predicts they’ll be able to identify optimal conditions for destruction in just a few years.

“Because it's a very energy intensive process, we don't know how long it's gonna take to get rid of all the PFAS,” he said.

It could be a while before places like Warren County, who are eager for solutions, could benefit from the research. While Wojnicz is excited to see progress, he said he’s skeptical about the price tag that comes with incineration like this.

Stoiber said there’s no doubt the research is necessary. In the meantime, though, she said the best way to reduce PFAS in our environment is to stop producing them.

“The best strategy and the most cost effective strategy is to take as much PFAS out of commerce as possible,” Stoiber said.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.