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PFAS-chomping bacteria kill some ‘forever chemicals,’ scientists say

University of California Riverside researchers Yujie Men and Bosen Jin have identified bacteria that's able to break down some "forever chemicals." This bacteria is commonly occurring in nature, which means it can easily be put into contaminated groundwater.
Sizhuo Zhang
/
UC Riverside
University of California Riverside researchers Yujie Men and Bosen Jin have identified bacteria that's able to break down some "forever chemicals." This bacteria is commonly occurring in nature, which means it can easily be put into contaminated groundwater.

There’s been a lot of concern recently about PFAS, pervasive “forever chemicals” that have seeped into waterways in the Mountain West and are difficult to remove.

But now there’s a glimmer of hope. Some researchers are finding bacteria can help clean up the chemicals, which have been linked to cancer and kidney disease.

University of California Riverside researchers identified two species of bacteria found in soil that can break down some PFAS chemicals commonly used in some electronics and medicine packaging. The findings were published in the journalNature Water last month.

“There may be more than 10,000 different PFAS compound structures,” said Yujie Men, one of the researchers. “Not all of them can be biodegraded, and if not all, [we wanted to know] which ones may be easier for microorganisms to break down.”

Here’s the science: These PFAS chemicals have more chlorine atoms, and their carbon-chlorine bonds are easy for the bacteria to degrade. That reaction creates an unstable compound that can spontaneously degrade further, breaking down stronger bonds and destroying the PFAS altogether.

“The implication is that introducing carbon-chlorine bonds can significantly increase the biodegradability,” Men said.

These bacteria occur in nature, which means scientists could easily put those nutrients into PFAS-contaminated groundwater. To speed up the process, methanol could be injected into groundwater to promote bacterial growth and presence.

But Men said the solution only works for chlorinated PFAS chemicals. PFAS chemicals with carbon-fluorine bonds – like the ones used in firefighting foam – are too strong to be broken down by this bacteria.

“Since there are so many different PFAS structures, there's no single bacteria that can do everything,” she said. “We need to know which type of bacteria are good at breaking down which PFAS structures…if they don’t have chlorine, sorry, I don't have a solution for you for now.”

The research comes as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforced new regulations in March to start cleaning up PFAS-contaminated groundwater across the nation.

Men said treatment and alternative design work in parallel, adding that further research is needed by chemists and eco-toxicologists to find more solutions for breaking down PFAS.

“We need to learn the structure specificity to better design different processes, different technologies, to break them down while in a more cost-effective way, a more environmentally friendly way,” she said.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Emma VandenEinde

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