Solving Public Health Threat with Innovative Water Treatment Technology

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A class of chemicals known as PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — presents a unique threat to public health. Since the 1940s, a wide variety of products have used these chemicals: nonstick coatings, food packages, textiles, and firefighting foams. PFAS can persist for decades in the environment; when they get into the water supply, they accumulate in the bodies of plants, animals, and people who consume them. PFASs are linked to cancer and are believed to disrupt the immune and endocrine systems.

We are part of RTI International’s environmental engineers and chemists who are working to solve the PFAS public health threat. The US Department of Defense owns more than 300 sites around the country where, since the 1970s, they have trained troops to fight fires using PFAS-based firefighting foam. An increasing number of bases are detecting PFAS in groundwater supplies, and this creates a problem for humans. Membrane separation techniques can remove PFAS from water. However, there is currently no reliable in situ water treatment method to destroy these chemicals.

In mid-2018, RTI and Yale University began working on a new method for destroying PFAS molecules. The Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) funded this work. The process uses a combination of ultraviolet light and a single atom catalyst developed by researchers at Yale University.

We have demonstrated that this method is effective at breaking down perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). This is one of the more commonly studied PFAS chemicals. In addition to potential use at the affected DoD sites, public and private water suppliers could also use this technology to destroy PFAS in their supplies.

Additional information on this technology is available on the SERDP website.

Contact us to learn about our work in PFAS.

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