The Road Less Traveled: Remediating PFAS Pollution in Our Lifetime – Part 2
Authors: Mark Goldfeder, MS, NRP, and Maurice A. Ramirez, DO, PhD
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu (Chinese Philosopher)
“The first step toward success is taken when you refuse to be a captive of the environment in which you first find yourself.” – Mark Caine (Environmental and Climate Policy Expert)
Current approaches to the large-scale remediation of environmental toxins and pollutants are burying, burning, and storing the offending material. While most chemical compounds require only a few decades to break down naturally, radioactive materials require centuries to decay and PFAS (per- or poly-fluoroalkyl substances) chemicals take millennia. The challenges of removing (remediating) these “Forever Chemicals” that contaminate our air, water, soil, and food supply were the focus of Part 1 of this article. PFAS cannot be eliminated from food animals or people until these toxins are remediated from the environments in which we live, work, learn, play and worship. In Part 2, we will describe an emerging remediation method that has demonstrated effectiveness against PFAS substances and is also cost-efficient, scalable, and environmentally friendly.
Technology known as Supercritical Water Oxidation (SCWO) has been around for more than 30 years. Water, oxygen, heat, and pressure are combined in the presence of a catalyst (non-toxic substance that speeds the reaction) to cause toxic substances to break down rapidly. The end products from this process are merely clean water and harmless, inert salts. While other methods of environmental remediation are still in the testing and development phases, SCWO already can be used at the commercial level to destroy stored toxins and leftover chemicals from manufacturing processes. Scientific researchers and industrial engineers maintain a growing database of ways to employ SCWO technologies, each with a customized “recipe” for removal of a specific chemical or toxin. Combining the content of this database with published scientific equations, researchers and engineers have elevated SCWO technology to full-scale remediation applications. Examples of these applications are the remediation of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), fluorinated hydrocarbons (FHCs), sewage sludge, and chemical weapons.
One of the newest SCWO applications is the successful destruction of PFAS-contaminated firefighting foam, which otherwise would add to the PFAS contamination of surrounding soil and water table. This advancement offers an exciting opportunity to bring true PFAS remediation to our communities. To meet the global challenges of PFAS-contaminated water and soil, this technology can be adapted to suit both large- and small-scale set-ups, as well as the removal of byproducts left over from any other PFAS-reduction technologies that were less environmentally friendly.
SCWO presents significant environmental advantages for the treatment of chemical wastes. First, the salt byproducts are easily separated from the cleaned water and cleaned soil. Unlike some other methods, SCWO does not replace one pollutant with another. Second, facilities for SCWO remediation not only remove PFAS contamination but many other industrial wastes and environmental pollutants. This allows for a much greater return-on-investment for any community or business as the same remediation equipment will be available to process numerous unwanted substances. Third, with the general approach solidified, researchers can focus on ways to maximize the environmental impact of widespread application of SCWO, such as developing uses for the salt byproducts and adapting the technology for use on mobile platforms.
Before widespread use of SCWO technologies to remediate PFAS pollution can be implemented, the appropriate regulatory framework to govern testing and remediation effectiveness will need to be in place. Enforceable mandates for remediation of air, water, soil, food, manufacturing, workplaces, and consumer products are key components to successful elimination of PFAS and other currently unregulated pollutants. Without these mandates, the funding needed to bring PFAS remediation to every neighborhood, water source, food supply, and habitat will not exist.
Regulatory limits on PFAS-related chemicals are a critical step, but will take time and are not the only actions to be taken. Avoidance of PFAS-containing products by consumers and the replacement of PFAS compounds with safe alternatives by manufacturers are essential steps that can be implemented now. However, these measures will not stop the growing levels of PFAS-bioaccumulation. Municipalities and industries need to adopt effective, environmentally friendly, and commercially scalable PFAS remediation technologies like SCWO to address and eliminate PFAS pollution now. Implementation funding must be supplied by governments, industry stakeholders, and PFAS manufacturers for the installation and operation of SCWO remediation facilities. Finally, and arguably most importantly, the organizations and leaders striving to accomplish these vital goals require our unwavering support. Let the health and safety of all individuals, families, communities, and habitats be our “forever” legacy – not our toxic waste.
“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
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