Soil and water

New technology seeks to destroy toxic ‘eternal chemicals’ in drinking water

Grand Rapids, Michigan — Researchers estimate that more than 200 million Americans in all 50 states may have cancer-causing carcinogens in their drinking water. Toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, called PFAS, are virtually indestructible, but a new technology aims to change that.

Sandy Wynn-Stelt discovered too late that her Michigan home was across from an old dump. Her husband died of cancer six years ago and she had thyroid cancer. For more than 20 years, they drank well water contaminated with PFAS.

“You can’t see it. You can’t taste it. You can’t smell it. You won’t know it’s there unless you test it,” Wynn-Stelt told CBS News.

PFAS – man-made, virtually indestructible chemicals – have become widely used for their ability to resist oil and water. They have been found in some fire fighting foams, beauty products and non-stick cookware, among other products. Because chemicals don’t break down in the environment, they can contaminate soil and drinking water sources, where they can build up and eventually move up the food chain.

At least 2,854 sites in 50 states and two territories are now known to be contaminated with the chemicals, according to the Environmental Working Group.

“The threat is real,” said Amy Dindal, PFAS program manager for Battelle, a science-based nonprofit that has developed promising technology to eliminate the problem. Battelle uses a process called supercritical water oxidation to break down chemical bonds in seconds.

“”Supercritical water” means that you increase the temperature and increase the pressure and you bring it into a special state, where oxidation will occur more naturally. So in this special state, it breaks the [carbon–fluorine] link,” Dindal told CBS News.

Battelle said it has successfully used the process in its labs to essentially annihilate PFAS in drinking water and has begun partnering with waste management company Heritage Crystal-Clean for additional testing.

“I absolutely think this is an answer that no one has had before,” Brian Recatto, CEO of Heritage Crystal-Clean, told CBS News. “We hope to have a scalable version of the factory in six to eight months.”

CBS News had exclusive access to the first demonstration of the technology, in which water containing PFAS was treated at a wastewater treatment plant. Heritage Crystal-Clean has several facilities across the country where it hopes to use the technology to treat wastewater.

A possible solution can’t come soon enough for Wynn-Stelt, which is also a member of the Great Lakes advocacy group PFAS Action Network.

“It would be so game-changing if we could do that,” she said. “That will be the only way to keep this out of our waters, out of our streams, out of our food.”