‘Brita, but 1,000 times better’: Innovative water treatment removes ‘forever chemicals’ for good

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Hazardous man-made “forever chemicals” called PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are now prevalent in so many of our resources, particularly water. Thankfully, engineers from the University of British Columbia have developed a new treatment that safely removes them from drinking water for good.

“Think Brita filter, but a thousand times better,” says UBC chemical and biological engineering professor Dr. Madjid Mohseni, who developed the technology, in a university release.

There are over 4,700 PFAS in use today, and they’re common components of non-stick cookware, stain repellents, and firefighting foam. However, research continues to link them to poor health, hormone changes, heart disease, developmental delays, and even cancer. This makes it even more important to limit exposure wherever possible.

Dr. Mohseni and the team developed an adsorbing material capable of tightly trapping and containing PFAS in water before destroying them with unique electrochemical and photochemical techniques — also created by the Mohseni lab. Unlike other treatments on the market right now, this technology captures almost every particle efficiently and in a timely manner.

“Our adsorbing media captures up to 99 percent of PFAS particles and can also be regenerated and potentially reused. This means that when we scrub off the PFAS from these materials, we do not end up with more highly toxic solid waste that will be another major environmental challenge,” explains Dr. Mohseni.

plastic contamination
In another study, published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, fluorinated high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic containers — used for household cleaners, pesticides, personal care products and, potentially, food packaging — tested positive for PFAS. CREDIT: University of Notre Dame

Low-income areas are particularly at risk of contamination

According to the researcher, Canada no longer manufactures PFAS, but that doesn’t stop them from sneaking into various products and the environment. For instance, these chemicals can easily seep into waters when people use stain-resistant or repellent sprays and materials. PFAS also have easy access to our bodies through products like makeup and sunscreen.

Water conditions are especially important to monitor for the health of those living in lower-income areas with contaminated drinking sources. As such, the team is further narrowing their focus to benefit people in rural, remote, and Indigenous communities in Canada.

“Our adsorbing media are particularly beneficial for people living in smaller communities who lack resources to implement the most advanced and expensive solutions that could capture PFAS. These can also be used in the form of decentralized and in-home water treatments,” says Dr. Mohseni.

Fatemeh Asadi Zeidabadi works on water treatment system to remove forever chemicals
Fatemeh Asadi Zeidabadi, a PhD student in the UBC department of chemical and biological engineering and a student in Dr. Madjid Mohseni’s group. Photo credit: Mohseni lab

The UBC team looks forward to piloting their technology throughout British Columbia starting in early 2023.

“The results we obtain from these real-world field studies will allow us to further optimize the technology and have it ready as products that municipalities, industry and individuals can use to eliminate PFAS in their water,” the study author concludes.

The findings appear in the journal Chemosphere.

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