3M Offers $10.3B Settlement Over PFAS Contamination in Water Systems – Now, How Do You Destroy a ‘Forever Chemical’?

Conor here: The following article is a nice summary of just how difficult it will be to deal with PFAS Contamination, although it skips over the history of destructive behavior by companies like 3M and DuPont:

By A. Daniel Jones and Hui Li. Jones is a professor of biochemistry at Michigan State University, and Li is a professor of environmental and soil chemistry at Michigan State University. Originally published at The Conversation.

PFAS chemicals seemed like a good idea at first. As Teflon, they made pots easier to clean starting in the 1940s. They made jackets waterproof and carpets stain-resistant. Food wrappers, firefighting foam, even makeup seemed better with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Then tests started detecting PFAS in people’s blood.

Today, PFAS are pervasive in soil, dust and drinking water around the world. Studies suggest they’re in 98% of Americans’ bodies, where they’ve been associated with health problems including thyroid disease, liver damage and kidney and testicular cancer. There are now over 9,000 types of PFAS. They’re often referred to as “forever chemicals” because the same properties that make them so useful also ensure they don’t break down in nature.

Facing lawsuits over PFAS contamination, the industrial giant 3M, which has made PFAS for many uses for decades, announced a US$10.3 billion settlement with public water suppliers on June 22, 2023, to help pay for testing and treatment. The company admits no liability in the settlement, which requires court approval. Cleanup could cost many times that amount.

But how do you capture and destroy a forever chemical?

Biochemist A. Daniel Jones and soil scientist Hui Li work on PFAS solutions at the Michigan State University and explained the promising techniques being tested today.

How do PFAS get from everyday products into water, soil and eventually humans?

There are two main exposure pathways for PFAS to get into humans – drinking water and food consumption.

PFAS can get into soil through land application of biosolids, that is, sludge from wastewater treatment, and can they leach out from landfills. If contaminated biosolids are applied to farm fields as fertilizer, PFAS can get into water and into crops and vegetables.

For example, livestock can consume PFAS through the crops they eat and water they drink. There have been cases reported in Michigan, Maine and New Mexico of elevated levels of PFAS in beef and in dairy cows. How big the potential risk is to humans is still largely unknown.

Scientists in our research group at Michigan State University are working on materials added to soil that could prevent plants from taking up PFAS, but it would leave PFAS in the soil.

The problem is that these chemicals are everywhere, and there is no natural process in water or soil effective at breaking them down. Many consumer products are loaded with PFAS, including makeup, dental floss, guitar strings and ski wax.

How are remediation projects removing PFAS contamination now?

Methods exist for filtering them out of water. The chemicals will stick to activated carbon, for example. But these methods are expensive for large-scale projects, and you still have to get rid of the chemicals.

For example, near a former military base near Sacramento, California, there is a huge activated carbon tank that takes in about 1,500 gallons of contaminated groundwater per minute, filters it and then pumps it underground. That remediation project has cost over $3 million, but it prevents PFAS from moving into drinking water the community uses.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed establishing legally enforceable regulations for maximum levels of six PFAS chemicals in public drinking water systems. Two of these chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, would be recognized as individual hazardous chemicals, with regulatory actions enforced when levels of either exceed 4 parts per trillion, which is substantially lower than previous guidance.

Filtering is just one step. Once PFAS is captured, then you have to dispose of PFAS-loaded activated carbons, and PFAS still moves around. If you bury contaminated materials in a landfill or elsewhere, PFAS will eventually leach out. That’s why finding ways to destroy it is essential.

What are the most promising methods scientists have found for breaking down PFAS?

The most common method of destroying PFAS is incineration, but most PFAS are remarkably resistant to being burned. That’s why they’re in firefighting foams.

PFAS have multiple fluorine atoms attached to a carbon atom, and the bond between carbon and fluorine is one of the strongest. Normally to burn something, you have to break the bond, but fluorine resists breaking off from carbon. Most PFAS will break down completely at incineration temperatures around 1,500 degrees Celsius (2,730 degrees Fahrenheit), but it’s energy intensive and suitable incinerators are scarce.

There are several other experimental techniques that are promising but haven’t been scaled up to treat large amounts of the chemicals.

A group at Battelle has developed supercritical water oxidation to destroy PFAS. High temperatures and pressures change the state of water, accelerating chemistry in a way that can destroy hazardous substances. However, scaling up remains a challenge.

Others are working with plasma reactors, which use water, electricity and argon gas to break down PFAS. They’re fast, but also not easy to scale up.

What are we likely to see in the future?

A lot will depend on what we learn about where humans’ PFAS exposure is primarily coming from.

If the exposure is mostly from drinking water, there are more methods with potential. It’s possible it could eventually be destroyed at the household level with electro-chemical methods, but there are also potential risks that remain to be understood, such as converting common substances such as chloride into more toxic byproducts.

The big challenge of remediation is making sure we don’t make the problem worse by releasing other gases or creating harmful chemicals. Humans have a long history of trying to solve problems and making things worse. Refrigerators are a great example. Freon, a chlorofluorocarbon, was the solution to replace toxic and flammable ammonia in refrigerators, but then it caused stratospheric ozone depletion. It was replaced with hydrofluorocarbons, which now contribute to climate change.

If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that we need to think through the full life cycle of products. How long do we really need chemicals to last?

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  1. griffen

    $10+ billion is a decent start, I suppose, but then the cynical thought occurs. Is that sufficient on a go forward basis to both complete extensive testing and to also remediate going concerns with water supplies. Added content, the $10.3 billion maximum seems to be lesser than, when spread out over a 13 year period. Defray those expenses to future accounting periods !!

    These findings could impact several locations in my home state of North Carolina, but possibly that is a different lawsuit against a Chemours plant location. I’ve seen reports about PFAS contamination around both Fayetteville and Wilmington.

    1. Louis Fyne

      This is a very favorable deal for 3M.

      “environmentalists” should be angry. Paging Greta…

      but hey, let’s keep arguing about banning gas stoves instead.

    2. Objective Ace

      These companies should be nationalized. The damage caused exceeds the market cap of these companies by orders of magnitude. Any reasonable accounting would de facto place them out of business.

      The private market is great efficiency wise for things like widgets with no externalities. When the industry proves itself unable or unwilling to factor externalities into their business its time for government to take it over.

      1. ScottB

        Right. Is the fine less than the profits they made from PFAs? And are they still producing them?

  2. Alice X

    Any day that I walk along a nearby river here in SE Michigan I see PFAS foam streaming down. People fish the river. There a signs warning of the contamination, saying DO NOT eat the fish. But the people do.

  3. Rip Van Winkle

    The C-Suiters back in the day knew all about ALL OF IT (game playing first semester organic chemistry chapters with # of C in the chain and various functional groups at the end). It was/is all bad stuff. They said in 2000, “Oh, it’s ONLY PFOA -acid and PFOS -sulfonate specific homologue compounds.”

    Easily found on a non-Goog search engine surf, “The Resignation Letter Of Richard Purdy -1999”. He copied all of them on his email AND the MPCA and USEPA. But but but $300,000,000+ rev PER YEAR on this year BACK THEN.

    They are laughing all the to the bank. This should be an asbestos/Johns Manville-type BK trust, at the very least.

    All roads lead to Rome on this crap: 3M and DuPont. All others along the user chains, water supply, water treatment, neighboring properties, waste disposal sites and general public picking up a good portion of the liability and harm tab. And what say the hapless liability insurance companies all along the way??? How about, “what did they know, and when did they know it?”.

    Creativity point to DuPont for inventing the Chemours entity, (Monsanto – Solutia anyone?) but the California AG sees through that scheme, see the lawsuit on CA AG site from about 6 months ago.. 3M tried to bull the same BK sub-entity stunt in an Indiana court about a year ago regarding military hearing-protection devices product liability, but was denied.

    Doesn’t really need to be said, but nobody is ever going to prison on this.

    1. Synoia

      Would PFASes tp effect the Rich and Developed countries more than the poor pns?

      It appears that PFASes are more used in or purchsed weather countries.

  4. Lex

    $10B isn’t even a beginning. The real cost will be born in higher utility and waste disposal rates. It has already begun.

    The fundamental problem with PFAS control/mitigation are the limits being set. 4 ppt is just a ridiculously low number. It’s not far from the analytical ability to detect it. If you want to sample for PFAS the first thing you have to do is have the collection bottle (or vessel) go through the PFAS analysis to make sure it isn’t contaminated. This doubles the analytical costs (not cheap) right off the bat.

    The next thing you have to do is collect a sample. To do so the sampler has to not wear anything made out of Gore-Tex, they cannot have eaten anything from a fast food wrapper that day, they can’t have washed their car, etc, etc, etc. Technically (in MI) the sampler is supposed to wear Tyvek coveralls and nitrile gloves that are certified as PFAS free … except no manufacturer certifies the materials that way.

    Essentially, when you have something that’s already literally everywhere and effectively still in use combined with a regulatory limit that is something like one drop of water in a thousand Olympic swimming pools.

    1. Piotr Berman

      Could you offer an opinion what should be proper safety threshold, and, if unknown, what kind of epidemiology (or whatever) could offer a reasonable threshold?

      I understand that stakes are high. A threshold that is too low would vastly exaggerate the extend of needed remediation and delay remediation where it is actually needed. In the meantime, what to do with Gore-Tex apparel, food wrapper etc.? Seems to we need to retreat to older, simpler, better time. “When I was a wee lad, we did not have fast food, and even less, fast-food wrapper.” (“…we…” were in Communist Poland in 60-ties. Fast food was pancakes, dumplings, macaroni with farmer’s cheese etc. served on ceramic plates with metal cutlery. If you had a container, they could put it inside (hence, reusable metal or something like that).

  5. redleg

    Sharpies- you can’t use a Sharpie to fill out the label on the sample jar. It has to be a ball point pen.

    Here in MN, we have to ship the 3M PFAS waste (generally at 1ppb or less) to Canada because no domestic treatment facility will take it. There’s a huge backlog right now.

    I’m the senior hydrogeologist on this project. None of us consultants are named in the article, but we have a skilled team of people and technology that’s actually mostly* removing the stuff from groundwater and surface water. The $10B seems low to me, but the MN-3M settlement a few years ago was $800M or something like that, and even though the funds have been spent liberally the MPCA has so far only managed to spend roughly half of the accrued interest. While it’s true that large water treatment projects are expensive, compared to a DOD weapons system (F-35, Patriot missile battery, etc.) it’s bus money. The $10B just from 3M is going to go a long way. I hope that the other manufacturers are likewise made to pay.

    * the treatment processes are exponential. The project chemical engineer doesn’t think it’s possible to remove all of the hydrophyllic PFAS from water; her goal is 50% of the health limit by reducing the concentration by 70-80% with each step of treatment. This is what’s happening in our little pilot treatment plant discussed in the above article.

    1. truly

      redleg, that is a very interesting project you are working on. Several years ago when I was serious about Koi keeping I looked into building a foam fractinator (sp?). In the Koi world I think the are actually nicknamed PP- which comes from a deliberate misspelling of Phoam Phractionator.
      Anyhow, the PP units appeared to work amazing. They would build a pretty simple unit, maybe 4 inch PVC, with a trap and an overflow of some sort. They oddly worked much better at night. Users of the PP systems would wake up to a huge pile of foam- dark and stinky stuff. As far as I know they were just happy to have it out of the pond and have their fish in pristine water. Foam was just allowed to run into garden soil.
      I think Koi keepers thought they were primarily pulling proteins out of the water, not toxins. Some called the units protein skimmers even.
      Good luck with your project.

      1. redleg

        The SAFF worked really well with water from the creek. I defer every chemistry question to the young chemical engineer, who has a PhD from MSU and IIRC was a grad student under the above mentioned professors, but the organics in the surface water somehow catalyze the PFAS to foam even more than normal. Like Alice X says above, I wouldn’t eat the fish caught in a foamy steam. Although the fish probably won’t stick to the pan when it gets cooked (/sarc).

        One sign of hope for the future is that with the exception of me and the project managers, the entire consulting team for this project is younger than 36 years old. They’re going to improve over time for a long time, from this already high level of competence.

  6. Hayek's Heelbiter

    Sonochemical degradation of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances – A review

    In the mid-1970s, I worked for American Cyannamid, and one of the responsibilities of my department was waste treatment. There was a demonstration of what was called at the time “UV-Assisted Ultrasonic Ozonolyis.”
    A beaker of chemical sludge was dumped into the apparatus, and after a period of out gassing (and smell of ozone!) clean water came out. All the organics were shredded by the combination of ozone and ultrasonic vibration. Obviously heavy metals remained, and I assume the fluorine and chlorine as well. I’m not sure how these were to be removed.
    For decades I’ve been wondering why this procedure was not employed more often, as it’s relatively simple and relatively cheap.
    Engineers out there, please enlighten me.

  7. Paul P

    The gross deformities caused by thalidomide enabled its dangers to be discovered. Had the drug caused some small change in the fetus, say,
    a more rapid transmission across a synapse, a whole generation of children might have suffered harm.

    The capacity of markets to spread a defect rapidly across nations is an inherent danger. PFOAs and PFOSs revealed no immediate harm and so we suffer.


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