On The Forever Journey: Addressing the PFAS Problem Requires a Collective Effort
Stevens environmental engineering professor Dibs Sarkar says 3M’s decision to stop producing PFAS “forever chemicals” by 2025 is a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done to fix the errors of the past
Nearly 80 years after Roy J. Plunkett, at the time an employee of DuPont de Nemours, accidentally discovered a version of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), the compound has become ubiquitous in consumer and industrial products.
Manufacturers use PFAS in all types of products resistant to oil, heat, stain or water, including cosmetics, firefighting foam, outdoor gear, nonstick cookware and food packaging such as fast-food wrappers and microwave popcorn bags.
But with the specter of irreversible environmental damage looming over these virtually indestructible “forever chemicals,” what used to be considered a wonder compound has been placed under the interrogation spotlight as of late.
In a press release published on December 20, 2022, 3M announced it was exiting PFAS manufacturing by the end of 2025. The company’s decision points to the growing global awareness of the negative impacts of PFAS on the environment and human health and helps illuminate a path other companies might want to take to help solve the problem.
Stevens Institute of Technology environmental engineering professor and founding director of the sustainability management M.S. and dual M.S.-MBA programs Dibs Sarkar, whose research has led to innovative solutions that remove toxic chemicals from the environment, thinks 3M’s decision was a good one. But because PFAS molecules do not biodegrade easily, he says they’re still a long-term problem.
“PFAS comprises a chain of carbon and fluorine atoms linked together, and this bond is one of the strongest ever created in organic chemistry, requiring lots of energy to break them apart,” said Sarkar. “This is what makes them ‘forever chemicals,’ which means that once these compounds are produced and released into the environment, they remain there indefinitely.”
Sarkar emphasized that PFAS accumulated in the soil and groundwater can contaminate drinking water sources, which, in turn, impacts our food supply. For example, a recent study published in the journal Environmental Research revealed that PFAS are widely detected in freshwater fish across the U.S.
Some studies have also suggested that exposure to high levels of PFAS can lead to negative health effects, such as cancer, liver damage, and developmental problems in infants and children.
According to Sarkar, there may be public pressure for companies to eliminate the use of PFAS in products completely. But because these products offer conveniences, it may take a while before they completely fall out of favor among U.S. consumers.
“On the one hand,” he explained, “PFAS are harmful because they never break down and persist nearly everywhere. There’s really nothing cost-effective that can be done to get rid of them entirely.”
On the other hand, however, products manufactured with PFAS also keep things dry and repel grease, making people’s everyday lives much easier. Think nonstick pans and water-repellent clothing, for example.
This double-edged sword of harm and convenience is why getting PFAS out of products is so hard, according to Sarkar.
“While 3M’s decision to stop producing PFAS by 2025 is a step in the right direction, much more can be done,” he said.
Consumer pressure, containment and more regulation are key
Sarkar thinks the path to minimizing the impact of PFAS must include a collective effort involving consumer pressure, government regulation and containment.
Researchers like Sarkar are already working on technology solutions for PFAS containment, which means that the compound can be captured and housed in a container for proper disposal.
For example, he developed a novel sustainable filter material by repurposing a nonhazardous solid waste — aluminum-based drinking water treatment residuals — that removes phosphorus, organics and heavy metals from water in a nontoxic, cost-effective way.
This filter material can adsorb more than 97% of PFOA chemicals and more than 99% of PFOS chemicals (the two most widely used subclasses of PFAS compounds) from water. The northern New Jersey region in which the university is located has one of the highest concentrations of PFAS-contaminated facilities and water supplies in the U.S., according to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.
As for consumer pressure, the best bet may be to have manufacturers develop alternatives to PFAS, according to Sarkar, but this will take a great deal of time and money manufacturers are unlikely to want to spend.
Regulatory agency involvement may make the biggest impact in addressing the PFAS problem, noted Sarkar.
“Increasing regulatory pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency to limit the use and release of PFAS into the environment is driving companies like 3M to make changes,” he said.
The need for increased transparency
Sarkar believes that 3M’s decision may serve as an impetus for other PFAS manufacturers to follow suit. But more than planning for the future, he said, efforts need to be made to make up for the mistakes of the past.
“In the past, companies dumped PFAS into the environment indiscriminately due to a lack of proper regulation or oversight,” said Sarkar.
For example, manufacturing facilities numbering in the tens of thousands, as well as landfills, wastewater treatment plants and transportation hubs such as airports, regularly discharged PFAS-containing firefighting foams into surface water.
“The willy-nilly releases of PFAS into the environment should not have been a problem because these chemicals should not have been released into the environment in the first place,” said Sarkar. “Because PFAS were not regulated, companies did not have to disclose anything about their releases, which made it difficult for the public and regulators to understand the extent of the problem.”
While 3M’s decision may point to a changing tide in terms of PFAS use in manufacturing products, these sorts of actions are not new, Sarkar said.
“The battle has been going on for decades,” he explained. “In fact, the EPA has been working on regulating PFAS for some time, and in the past 3M and other companies have already agreed to phase out the production of certain types of PFAS.”
In general, Sarkar applauds the efforts of the EPA and the regulations it has developed to help address the PFAS problem.
For example, the EPA lowered the safe threshold for PFAS compounds from 70 parts per trillion in 2016 to near zero in 2022, with PFOA now limited to 0.004 parts per trillion and PFOS limited to 0.02 parts per trillion.
In another recent move, the EPA proposed designating PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). This law is commonly known as "Superfund.”
According to Sarkar, if the EPA’s proposal is accepted and implemented as a rule, companies may be required to disclose information about their releases of PFOA and PFOS, which will increase transparency and help hold polluters accountable for their actions.
Until then, Sarkar is continuing his research to contain the forever chemicals problem. With a recent $1.29-million award from the U.S. Department of Defense, he plans on further developing green remediation technology for PFAS-contaminated soil and water.