Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) used to be considered helpful. Made from fluoropolymers, PFCs were used to provide protective coatings for packaging products, clothes, and furniture, and they help frying pans be less sticky, and help firefighters flight blazes.
Not surprising, they are common in the environment. But the problem now is that studies are showing that they can be harmful to human health. A British study found a link between PFCs and child obesity. Another study found that the chemicals could reduce the effectiveness of vaccines.
Because the military used PFCs when it practiced putting out fires, it is now trying to remediate the soil where the chemicals accumulated so that they do not spread and contaminate groundwater. Toward that goal, Department of Defense’s U.S. Air Force Center for Engineering and the Environment has awarded University of Georgia (UGA) associate professor Qingguo “Jack” Huang a $689,431 grant to test the effectiveness of an enzyme-based cleanup approach, according to a UGA press release.
“PFCs are emerging as contaminates, and big users of these chemicals are concerned about cleaning them up,” says Huang, an environmental chemist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “These chemicals are robust and hard to degrade, and none of the current technologies are practical for remediation.”
Australia, Canada, and the European Union have restricted how the chemicals are used. California, Minnesota, and New Jersey have taken similar measures. Cleanup efforts are ongoing where the chemicals have soaked into the ground at firefighting training centers and industrial sites.
“These products are used at military bases, airports and oil-drilling facilities, where fire-fighting practices are routinely performed,” Huang says. “These are big scale uses that release the chemicals into the soil where they go into the ground water.”
Many companies are phasing out the manufacturing of some PFCs. In the near future, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will regulate certain types of the chemicals. In all likelihood, places where large amounts of PFCs have been released and accumulated will need to have PFCs remediated.
Huang has had some success in the laboratory in degrading PFCs with his enzymes. He plans to use the grant to take the concepts proven in the laboratory and apply them in the field. He will first find an optimal formula for the enzyme, specific to the PFCs, and then conduct tests at actual cleanup sites.
“Basically, our project is a start,” Huang says. “These chemicals have made a significant profit in the past. Now, reports show they are harmful. The DOD is quite serious about this. Once these chemicals are regulated, PFCs will be a big responsibility because the contaminated sites will have to be maintained and cleaned up.”
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.