The race to clean up PFAS
The University of Newcastle have developed a methodology modifies natural clay to prevent the spread of existing PFAS contamination

The attention on PFAS chemicals, including a massive class action being prepared against Defence, is spurring research to clean up the problem, including from Arcadis, AECOM and a range of universities. One solution could be hemp.

Shine Lawyers has launched a class action on behalf of residents of Katherine NT and Oakey in QLD who have been impacted by PFAS contamination from neighbouring Defence sites.

It is now investigating the possibility of launching a “super class action” against the Department of Defence that would involve up to 40,000 people from eight other sites in Darwin, Wagga Wagga, Richmond, Townsville, Bullsbrook, Edinburgh and Wodonga.

US toxics campaigner Erin Brockovich came to Australia last month to promote the cause on behalf of Shine.

But PFAS chemicals, implicated in cancer and other illnesses, are also generating a plethora of remediation technologies.

After all, while industrial society has been the source of some truly ghastly messes it seems there’s nothing like a man-made problem to stimulate the creative juices and competitive spirit of the science and engineering community.

University of Newcastle researchers are working on potential solutions to existing PFAS contamination, including one that shows how circular thinking is changing the way we approach toxic waste issues.

The researchers have discovered PFAS likes to bond with the proteins in hemp seeds, with trials showing hemp plants can suck the PFAS out of a contaminated water sample.

A team from the University’s Priority Research Centre for Geotechnical Science and Engineering led by Dr Brett Turner are now looking at whether the hemp pant can also remove PFAS from contaminated soil.

The research attracted a $4.7 million federal government grant.

“We found that hemp has a remarkable affinity for PFAS chemicals in groundwater, so we expect that this can be applied to remediate contaminated soil – an area where currently there are no options,” Turner says.

The trial will probably obtain soil from the contaminated site at Oakey Army Aviation Centre in Queensland to use in a purpose-built secure greenhouse.

Because PFAS need to be destroyed, rather than sent to landfill, understanding the mechanism of PFAS removal and where it ends up in the plants is part of the research task.

“We also need to be sure how to thermally destroy the hemp once they have been utilised.”

The team will also be considering whether the hemp can be potentially used as an input for productive purposes such as hemp masonry, hemp plastics, or biofuel feedstock after it has done the clean-up job.

“Depending on where we identify the end points of PFAS uptake in the plant, the end uses will become clearer,” Turner says.

“For example, if PFAS accumulates in the leaves and not the stalk or seed then we only have to separate the leaves from the remaining plant. The rest of the plant can then be used for its normal end-use.”

Locking up PFAS with clay

Researchers from the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE), based at Newcastle University, have also come up with a methodology that involves a patented modified natural clay to prevent the spread of existing PFAS contamination.

The product, matCARE™ soaks up toxic chemicals and binds them, stopping PFAS chemicals from leaching into nearby surface and groundwater.

“Concrete acts like a sponge. It has a very porous structure and can readily soak up PFAS. Rain can then wash these pollutants out of the concrete and into soil, creeks, rivers and groundwater,” Professor Ravi Naidu, managing director of CRC CARE says.

“A few kilograms of matCARE will successfully treat a typical contaminated site, protecting people and the environment. It is inexpensive and effective.”

There’s even a nano version in the works. CRC CARE scientists Drs Jianhua Du and Danidu Kudagamage have created a nano-powder form that can penetrate into PFAS-contaminated concrete when applied as a slurry.

The matCARE slurry also locks up other pollutants in concrete, such as hydrocarbons, and can be used to treat contaminated soil.

Meanwhile in South Australia

Old cooking oil might find a new life as part of PFAS clean-up, with researchers from University of South Australia and Flinders University’s Institute for NanoScale Science and Technology combining a polymer made from waste cooking oil partnered with activated carbon to produce a filter material that can remove PFAS from contaminated surface water.

Tests conducted at a RAAF base where firefighting foam has resulted in PFAS contamination showed the filter material reduced PFAS levels by 85 per cent.

The research is a step in the right direction towards “safe, low-cost and versatile methods for removing PFAS from water,” Dr Justin Chalker, Flinders University co-director of the study says.

The next step is to test the technique on a commercial scale, UniSA’s Dr Martin Sweetman says.

“The activated carbon and polymer in this sorbent blend can, in principle, be made entirely from industrial waste and repurposed biomass, so it is very scalable and sustainable.”

The core technology – a canola oil polysulfide sorbent – is now protected by a provisional patent.

The two-step tech solution

While Arcadis preferred not to reveal to The Fifth Estate who its clients are for the 75+ PFAS remediation projects comprising over 300 individual sites in 12 countries it’s working on, it has been recognised for one of those projects with a Consult Australia Award for Technological Innovation this year.

In partnership with EVOCRA, it used a process of ozone fractionation combined with a secondary nanofiltration technology to treat 15 megalitres of PFAS-contaminated wastewater over an 18-month period as part of emergency management response.

Arcadis has since acquired the exclusive global licence for the EVOCRA-developed technology.

It’s not the only solution the company is offering clients. A spokesperson for ARCADIS says it has been working on the “PFAS challenge” since 2004, and tailors the appropriate solution for each project site in consultation with the client.

AECOM also in the game

Global consultancy AECOM is also innovating in the space, developing a technology in collaboration with the University of Georgia which destroys PFAS chemicals.

DE-FLUORO™ doesn’t merely lock up the chemicals or separate them out so they can be disposed of, it obliterates them using electrochemical oxidation.

AECOM is pitching this as a partner technology for other remediation technologies to provide a “whole of lifecycle solution” to PFAS issues.

Trials completed over the last 12 months have successfully destroyed PFAS in samples provided by organisations from sectors, including aviation, defence, manufacturing and petrochemicals.

The problem is actually worse than you may think – beware compostable takeaway food bowls, baking paper, grease-proof paper, takeaway coffee cups, and microwave popcorn packaging

While the focus in mainstream reporting on PFAS and state and federal government clean-up efforts has been on sites contaminated with PFAS due to the use of fire-fighting foam, overseas concern now extends to PFAS in products including food wrappers and food packaging, artificial turf and synthetic carpets.

Denmark has just banned PFAS chemicals in food packaging, after studies showed it may be leaching into food.

It is used in products including baking paper, grease-proof paper, takeaway coffee cups, compostable takeaway food bowls and microwave popcorn packaging.

The ban takes effect in June next year.

Even sports players might be picking up cancer from the soft flexible fake grass (with PFAS)

In the US, the artificial turf industry has been in the spotlight with a possible link discovered between PFAS used to make the artificial grass for playing fields all lush and soft and flexible, and increased cancer rates among players.

The first red flag was raised by soccer coach Amy Griffin in 2014 – but while researchers discovered cause for concern, the artificial turf industry has gone into bunker-mode.

Read the full investigation here.

When it comes to preventing more PFAS from entering our environment through its use in so many products, one of the regulatory challenges is many governments – excepting obviously the Danish government – remain unconvinced there is enough proof of human health risks.

The NSW EPA says  in its PFAS FAQ:

“There is no consistent evidence of any human health effects related to PFAS exposure however impacts have been found in laboratory animals.”

According to various other sources, studies on rats have shown effects including hormonal changes, cancer, changes to liver and kidneys, malformations of the skeletal system of pups in utero and behavioural changes.

NSW EPA says:

“Much of the research on humans has been done with people who were exposed to relatively high levels of PFAS through their work.

“Workers involved in the manufacture or use of PFAS usually have higher blood PFAS levels than the general public. Studies on PFAS workers have looked for effects on cholesterol levels, male hormones, heart disease, liver changes and other effects, including cancer. These studies have not consistently shown that PFAS exposure is linked to health problems.”

What it does hurt is property values

The property market – and the banks that finance property buyers – appears to be one area where PFAS is having a proven, detrimental impact.

Shine national special counsel Joshua Aylward who is leading the litigation for residents against Defence says people who are part of any class action are not in a position to just “pack up and leave”.

“They can’t sell their properties because people won’t buy them and even if there was an interested party, they would likely offer peanuts, or be unable to get finance.”

US toxics campaigner Erin Brockovich came to Australia last month to promote the cause on behalf of Shine.

She says the Commonwealth is sending “mixed messages” on the issue.

“Residents are being told it doesn’t pose a risk to their health but at the same time the government is giving them bottled water,” she says.

“It’s an extraordinarily confusing message.”

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