High Alert Institute



The Road Less Traveled: Remediating PFAS Pollution in Our Lifetime – Part 1

by | Jan 12, 2023

The Road Less Traveled: Remediating PFAS Pollution in Our Lifetime – Part 1

Authors: Mark Goldfeder, MS, NRP, and Maurice A. Ramirez, DO, PhD

“Two roads diverged in the wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost

The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road – the one less traveled by – offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”
– Rachel Carson

Since their origin in the 1950s, PFAS (per- or poly-fluoroalkyl substances) chemicals have been used in products from cooking spray to firefighting foam to pizza boxes. Originally invented to help repel water, heat, and grease, PFAS chemicals are commonplace in nearly everything we encounter in our daily lives. Once touted as “safe” by manufacturers, PFAS substances have been dubbed “Forever Chemicals” by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – chemicals that do not break down easily or spontaneously. This results in the accumulation of these toxins in the air, soil, water, and food supply. PFAS and PFAS-related compounds have been linked to numerous health problems, including those listed below:

  • Multiple types of cancer
  • Diabetes, thyroid disease, and other endocrine disorders
  • Miscarriages, preeclampsia, and birth defects
  • Asthma and respiratory disorders
  • Heart disease and high cholesterol
  • Liver disease and gastrointestinal disorders

Previous articles in this series have addressed health and safety concerns associated with PFAS contamination. We have discussed the history of PFAS, the health effects on the current and future generations related to its use, and the need to implement responsible product sourcing to prevent further contamination of our air, soil, water, and food supply. Awareness of the impacts and reducing new sources of PFAS pollution are important parts of the overall solution. However, unless we take measures to remove the existing contamination now, attaining a world that is “Forever Free” from PFAS will not be possible. Removing PFAS from the environment is the only way to remove these toxins from our food, our animals, and ourselves.

Scientists measure the breakdown of chemicals in plants, animals, people, and the environment in terms of “half-lives.” One half-life is the amount of time needed to reduce the level of a given chemical or substance by one-half. To be statistically undetectable, five half-lives must pass, either by breakdown or elimination. The half-life of PFAS in animals and people takes up to eight years, provided there is no new exposure. Thus, even after removing PFAS from our environment, it will take another 40 years for these substances to be eliminated from all living things.

PFAS has one of the strongest known chemical bonds. This characteristic prevents natural decay that would result from oxidation or ultra-violent light and renders standard toxin removal methods ineffective. As one comparison, petroleum byproducts will break down on their own and have a half-life of 25 to 50 years. Bacteria will degrade PFAS eventually, but the process is exceedingly slow. Multiple studies have shown that just one half-life will take over 1,000 years! This means that even if all PFAS manufacturing stopped today, bacterial degradation alone would require more than 5,000 years to remove PFAS-related chemicals from all plants, animals, people, and environments.

Current approaches to the large-scale removal of toxins and pollutants from habitats are to bury, store, or burn the offending materials. Activated carbon adsorption, ion exchange resins, and high-pressure membrane filtration are used to collect and concentrate PFAS contamination from wastewater and drinking water. Burying and storage seek to separate toxic materials from the environment and living things until the material breaks down naturally. For most chemical compounds, this requires only a few decades, while radioactive materials will take centuries to decay.  PFAS chemicals take millennia – longer than containers for storage and burying will last. This results in the seepage of PFAS into surrounding areas, further contaminating the soil and water. Burning of PFAS compounds – even at incineration temperatures – is not effective. All that burning does is aerosolize the toxins without destroying them, which is why this practice now prohibited by the EPA. Unfortunately, there is no global ban on PFAS burning.  Super high-temperature incineration has been tried most often but merely reorganizes the PFAS compounds, trading one durable toxin for another. In addition, this procedure is very expensive to scale to industrial clean-up levels, contributes to greenhouse gases, and conflicts with multiple EPA and WHO mandates. Burying, burning, and storing are not solutions to PFAS pollution.

Scientists and engineers have spent years inventing technologies to accelerate the degradation of “forever chemicals.” Emerging technologies have demonstrated that the half-life for PFAS chemicals can be shortened to hours and even minutes. While many of these technologies work well in the controlled setting of a laboratory using small models, effectiveness against PFAS compounds is lost when the same technologies are tested for larger remediations. In Part 2 of this article, we will discuss a cost-effective, scalable technology that remediates PFAS without leeching, aerosolization, or generating new toxic byproducts.

Regulation, avoidance, substitution, and remediation are but four steps in a journey along the road less traveled. That road holds the promise of leading us to the successful removal of PFAS chemicals from our bodies and our habitats. Indeed, this would be the road to a healthier, “Forever Free” world. 

About the Authors:

Mark Goldfeder, MS, NRP, is the Founder and President of Five Bugles Institute, a provider of safety, leadership, and technical education nationally for over a decade. A 30-year veteran firefighter and paramedic, he is the co-author of Five Bugles Institute’s PFAS remediation and replacement educational program. Learn more about Five Bugles Institute’s research at www.fivebuglesinstitute.com/pfas

Maurice A. Ramirez, D.O., Ph.D. is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award in Disaster Medicine and Co-Founder of the High Alert Institute, a 501c3 not-for-profit educational public charity dedicated to providing disaster readiness education and resources to unserved and underserved communities, industries, and charitable organizations in an All Hazards, One Health/One Nature, One Framework paradigm. Learn more about the High Alert Institute at www.HighAlertInstitute.org

Griffin Works offers Pawsitive Interactions with Service Dogs During Response Operations©, an audience-customized training that breaks down barriers by offering hands-on handling training and demonstrations with working service dogs for fire departments, EMS agencies, and public safety organizations.

Part of the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium and home to the National Emergency Response and Recovery Training Center, TEEX has been leading homeland security training since 1998. The major TEEX programs include fire and rescue, infrastructure and safety, law enforcement, economic and workforce development, and homeland security. As a member of The Texas A&M University System, TEEX is unique in its ability to access a broad range of emerging research and technical expertise. Beginning with course design and development all the way through hands-on instruction and national certification testing, TEEX delivers comprehensive training through both classroom and hands-on instruction and as online courses.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) was created by Congress in 2000 as part of the Children’s Health Act to raise the standard of care and increase access to services for children and families who experience or witness traumatic events. This unique network of child-serving professionals, caregivers and young adults, researchers, and national partners is committed to changing the course of children’s lives by improving their care and moving scientific gains quickly into practice across the U.S. The NCTSN is administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and coordinated by the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress (NCCTS). 

The Emergency Management Institute (EMI) is part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The EMI provides national leadership in developing and delivering training to ensure that individuals and groups having key emergency management responsibilities possess the requisite skills to effectively perform their jobs.

The High Alert Institute maintains a list of reviewed courses provided by governments, universities and professional organizations. This list is geared towards the non-emergency management person who participates in disaster planning, preparedness, response, recovery or mitigation as part of their job responsibilities.

The High Alert Institute has partnered with Shutterstock to distribute stock images from the nature images donated by our supporters. For eligible stock images, Shutterstock will donate a portion of the royalty to the High Alert Institute. There is no cost to charitable organizations or to Shutterstock customers.

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Koi need forever homes, too! For pond enthusiasts, freshwater exotic and ornamental fish may not be available through pet stores or rescues in their area. The High Alert Institute Aquatic Pet Shelter Rehoming Program will be happy to assist you in stocking your new pond or adding a new finned friend to your school. Coming soon – when you adopt a Koi from the High Alert Institute Aquatic Pet Shelter Rehoming Program, we can arrange for delivery to your door anywhere in the continental United States.

Have you always wanted a Koi pond but don’t have the space one? Sponsor a Koi in our community shelter pond and we send you photos of your sponsored animal. Coming soon are live Koi Cameras above and below the water to enjoy your sponsored Koi anytime.

Dumping of freshwater non-native species and exotic aquatic pets into wild habitats is a man-made disaster that is truly preventable. The Institute’s Aquatic Pet Welfare Partnership works to raise awareness and reduce the impact on healthy ecosystems through education, as well as rescue and rehoming. Joined by champions of animal welfare and environmental stewardship, this  association of aquatic pet rescue operations and aquatic pet shelters across the United States aims to save our finned friends and preserve our waterways together.

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Make your donation twice as nice by rehoming aquatic pets and providing a rehabilitation companion pet to a deserving person, family, or facility. Sponsor part or all of a Joy of Koi Program pond installation – complete with rehomed koi – and give the gifts of love and recovery.

Professional photographers, amateurs, and legal copywrite holders are all welcome to participate in the High Alert Institute Nature Photo Donation Program. Sales of the images benefit the Institute and donors are eligible for tax deductions equivalent to the fair market value of their photos. Landscapes, seascapes, animals, flowers – all may be accepted – whether new or vintage  images. People may be included in the photo but only if unidentifiable (i.e., blurred figures at a distance).

Did you know that unused patents and copyrights can be donated to charity? Intellectual Property (IP) just sitting on a shelf will lose value as it becomes obsolete. The High Alert Institute IP Donation Program seeks to rescue stranded, technology-related IP with the potential for development into marketable products. Once accepted by the program, the owner/inventor is eligible for a tax deduction equivalent to the fair market value of the IP. The Institute receives the patent licensing fees or revenue from the sale of the IP to businesses, helping us to fund our mission. In turn, businesses are able to advance their markets and create jobs for less money than starting a project from scratch.

Disasters are defined as situations in which needs exceed or overwhelm available resources. Some disasters affect an entire community, while other disasters impact individuals and families. Crises of physical or psychological health can be very personal disasters.
The therapeutic value of pets during illness, trauma, and recovery is well established. And Koi fish may be well suited for people who are not able to provide verbal pet commands or physically care for pets like dogs and cats. Koi ponds are also a source of beauty and peace, providing an ideal setting for quiet reflection or meditation.
We are working to partner with pond installers and aquatic pet rescues/shelters to offer free or reduced-cost ponds with rehomed Koi fish to people seeking this type of pet therapy.

Disasters disrupt life and impact our sense of personal, family, and community safety. Survivors and responders alike often are not aware of the emotional, psychological or spiritual challenges that they may face from disaster onset through recovery. With two decades of experience training responders and communities to prepare for the behavioral health aspects of disasters, we will continue to provide education and a curated list of resources to groups or individuals.

Non-medical factors that impact overall health are termed Social Determinants of Health or SDoH. Noise pollution, poor air quality, and poor water quality are three environmental factors known to have a strong link to overall health. And the same environmental factors that impact humans impact their pets and other animals in their care. We continue to assist in advocacy, education, and technology development to mitigate the impact of SDoH on humans and animals alike.

Our efforts in shelter and rescue are the main focus of our environmental stewardship, reducing the environmental impact of non-native aquatic animals being dumped into public waterways. The High Alert Institute also assists innovators with the design, development, and evaluation of green and renewable energy technologies. Reducing the carbon footprint associated with disaster preparedness, response, and recovery furthers our continued mission to mitigate risk and improve resilience.

We partner with public and private organizations, sharing resources and fostering partnerships to improve disaster preparedness, response, and recovery, and mitigation.

The High Alert Institute team has over a century of combined research experience in medical, nursing, behavioral health, and disaster sciences. Our team provides support to researchers and technology developers through comprehensive literature searches and reviews, as well as failure mode database searches and adjudicated reviews.

When disaster strikes, most aquatic pet owners have limited options to secure the safety of their pets. Sheltering in place may not be possible if there is no power to provide aeration and “pet-friendly” shelters do not include ponds or aquariums. Our goal is to provide an option for aquatic pet owners in need of rescue and shelter for their finned friends.

Our goal is to share our two decades of disaster readiness experience with animal welfare organizations, shelters, caretakers, and pet owners, as they implement contingency  plans for natural and manmade disasters.

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