PFAS chemicals are a growing concern for ecosystems and public health.
The University of Minnesota is studying how to make harmful “eternal chemicals” less dangerous to Minnesota’s ecosystems with a naturally occurring bacterium that can break down these chemicals in the environment.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), commonly referred to as “eternal chemicals,” are often found in nonstick cookware, stain protectants, fire-fighting foam, and cosmetics. They can potentially cause cancer and pose dangers to developing fetuses and young children, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). The MPCA expanded its PFAS monitoring plan to include additional industrial facilities in the Twin Cities on March 22.
Expanded Surveillance in the Twin Cities
Monitoring will determine if PFAS chemicals are being released to groundwater, wastewater and surface water and collect data on concentration levels. Monitoring will also help develop regulations and legislation around PFAS in Minnesota, as there are currently no statewide water quality standards. Regulations have been difficult to develop due to the mobility and persistence of PFAS in the environment, according to MPCA PFAS coordinator Sophie Greene.
The MPCA’s expanded plan will monitor 137 manufacturing and industrial facilities, eight regional airports, 143 landfills and solid waste management facilities, and 91 municipal wastewater treatment plants. The MPCA will summarize and report this data to the public in 2024 and use this information to implement other pollution prevention efforts.
“[PFAS] are known as ‘eternal chemicals’ because they do not break down in the environment once released,” said Matt Simcik, University Professor of Environmental Health Sciences. “We’re always trying to find something that’s effective, inexpensive, and highly concentrated that we can use to destroy these things.”
Student researcher tackles PFAS
PFAS are difficult chemicals to remove because they have a high resistance to degradation and tend to remain in water and soil for long periods of time. This ultimately leads to accumulation in humans and fish, according to graduate student researcher Maddy Bygd.
With the help of Lawrence Wackett University biology professor, Bygd researched and identified a bacterium, “Pseudomonas putida”, which can break down pollutants similar to PFAS in soils.
The bacteria breaks down chemicals into less harmful compounds such as fluoride and carbon in a process called defluoridation. This process decontaminates the PFAS chemical so that it is less harmful to the environment.
“By understanding these reactions, we can apply an effective enzyme into the soil without causing ecological damage or dangerous effects to remediate chemicals such as PFAS,” Bygd said.
PFAS and large companies
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, some companies have received increasing attention regarding their release of PFAS into the environment and have been forced to change their manufacturing practices.
Twin Cities-based 3M has used these chemicals for more than 50 years to manufacture products, according to the 3M website. In February 2018, Minnesota reached an $850 million settlement with the company for the production of PFAS which caused damage to natural resources and drinking water in the eastern metropolitan area.
According to the 3M website, the company has invested more than $200 million worldwide to address PFAS.
“By monitoring these facilities, we can understand the amount [of PFAS] present and make strategic decisions to create future comprehensive regulations,” said Greene.