Research ramps up but PFAS pollution remains tough to tackle

By Shannon Kelleher

As researchers rush to tackle global contamination from a class of toxic chemicals known as PFAS, a new study demonstrates a novel way to detect the substances in wastewater – but also underscores how far scientists are from figuring out how to effectively overcome this worldwide threat to human and environmental health.

The new method makes use of a sensor to identify one type of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in heavily contaminated water based on changes in light emissions from metals on the device’s surface, according to a Jan. 16 study in the journal Analytical Chemistry. The researchers plan to develop the early model in to a portable device, according to a press release.

Current PFAS detection methods take place in a laboratory using a tool called a mass spectrometer, which charges molecules in a sample and then accelerate them using magnetic or electric fields so that scientists can identify them.

“Existing approaches are time-consuming,” said Zoe Pikramenou, a professor at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom who is an author of the study. “Our approach offers significant advantages of greater speed, ease of analysis, and reduced cost over currently-used methods.”

The prototype can so far only measure one PFAS chemical out of thousands. And although the sensor appears to be sensitive enough to illuminate PFAS in industrial wastewater, it may take another decade before the technology can be used for drinking water, which contains much lower levels of the chemicals, said Pikramenou.

Many other promising new technologies to detect so-called “forever chemicals”, which do not naturally break down,  remain in the early stages of development. The Biden administration has called on federal agencies to restrict PFAS from entering US water, air, land, and food; set goals for the government to better assess and reduce PFAS exposure; clean up existing pollution; and expand health effects information.