London, Europe Brief News – Scientists have linked exposure to the substances, known as PFAS, at certain levels to serious health risks, including cancer and birth defects.
Their resistance to water, oil and stains make them highly useful. PFAS are used in hundreds of everyday objects from frying pans to make-up.
But it is these properties that make them so difficult to destroy.
PFAS stands for poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances. There are around 4,500 of these fluorine-based compounds and they are found in almost every dwelling on Earth in products including food packaging, non-stick cookware, rain gear, adhesives, paper and paints.
They have been identified in low levels in rainwater globally – but if they infiltrate water or soil in high level, they can become a serious concern.
Research remains ongoing to determine how different levels of exposure can lead to various health effects.
“There is an association between exposure and adverse outcomes in every major organ system in the human body,” Elsie Sunderland, professor of environmental chemistry at Harvard University, tells BBC News.
Existing methods to destroy PFAS, such as incineration, have not been very successful – they require extremely high temperatures which is expensive.
New research, from scientists at Northwestern University, US claims to have done the “seemingly impossible” and destroyed PFAS using low temperature and cheap products.
This could be very useful in helping communities suffering from high-level contamination, according to Prof Sunderland, who is not part of the research team.
The reason PFAS have historically been so difficult to destroy is because they contain many carbon and fluorine bonds – the strongest bonds in organic chemistry.
But it is these bonds which means they can repel liquids – known as omniphobic – and makes them very useful for the pharmaceutical and food industries.