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Something must be done!

Paul Nathanail, Technical Director, Land Quality Management

The social impact of the industrial collapse in 1920s South Wales prompted the visit of King Edward VIII to proclaim, "Something must be done."

Much of my work revolves around a universe of millions of synthetic molecules made over the years to exploit the special properties of the ultra-strong bond between carbon and fluorine. Whether you want heat resistance, water repellence, or grease proofing, the C-F bond delivers, with a little help from various groups of atoms that attach to the end of a molecule to give it specific properties, most notably the ability to foam, like a dishwashing detergent. Fire-fighting foams, pizza boxes, outdoor clothing, and fire-safe furniture have historically depended on, and some still do, the universe of per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS).

And when the pizza is eaten, the fire is fought, the waterproof gear is outgrown, and the sofa is no longer in vogue, just throw them away. However, as one of Barry Commoner's laws of ecology reminds us, there is no "away." Because the C-F bond is difficult to break, yet the molecules are highly efficient at hitchhiking in the wind, sea spray, rain, streams, and groundwater, as the words of Fleetwood Mac's 1987 song suggest, they get Everywhere: from Everest's Khumbu Glacier to polar ice, ocean-crossing turtles, the blood of Americans, and England's fresh water.

It is still early days in our ability to estimate the risks to human health for virtually all PFAS. We know that the headline-grabbing PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS, and PFNA cannot easily be used as surrogates for the complex mixtures in products or the results of chemical transformations in the environment. In situ remediation is mainly limited to pathway interruption, while ex situ volume reduction is widely used as a precursor to energy-intensive and expensive destruction.

Join us at the upcoming Management of PFAS conference to learn more.