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New science may help fight PFAS, researcher says

Kate Carlson/Holland Sentinel • Nov 30, 2018 at 12:00 AM

HOLLAND — An electrochemist says emerging science could help break down potentially dangerous chemicals in Michigan's groundwater.

About 50 people came to hear the lead researcher on the project, Cory Rusinek, discuss how boron-doped diamond electrodes can be used to help remediate PFAS. The event took place at the Michigan State University Bioeconomy Institute in Holland on Wednesday.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are referred to as "forever chemicals" because they are so difficult to break down. They are present in water supplies where flame retardants, waterproofing or vapor suppressants are used.

Rusinek said the chemicals have one of the "strongest bonds in organic chemistry."

The new electrochemical oxidation system systematically breaks down PFAS, transforming the hazardous material into carbon dioxide, water and fluoride. Rusinek has been working on the project with Fraunhofer USA and Michigan State University staff, and MSU doctorate and undergraduate students.

The event provided an overview of the health risks and prevalence of PFAS, inconsistencies in how they are tested, the range of new remediation tactics, and the recent boron-doped diamond electrode method.

Although researchers are still studying long-term effects, current known health issues connected to PFAS include high cholesterol, a compromised immune system and a risk of cancer.

Rusinek highlighted the flaws in how PFAS are tested, removed from areas, and how they are incorrectly deemed safe at levels at 70 parts per trillion (ppt) by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"I don't think this is a problem we're 10 years away from solving, but I don't think it's going to get solved tomorrow because of all these moving parts," Rusinek said.

Source of PFAS

PFAS have been discovered across Michigan in areas that include Parchment and Cooper townships in Kalamazoo County. Elevated levels of PFAS were found Oct. 29 in drinking well water of Robinson Elementary School in Ottawa County's Robinson Township. A recent Northwest Ottawa Water System study did not find any presence of PFAS in the municipal water systems of Holland or Zeeland.

"This is a global issue, not just one we necessarily have here," Rusinek said.

Flame retardants are the main indicator of a PFAS contaminated area, because the substances have been used so regularly for so long, Rusinek said. They are also in overlooked places like carpets, textiles, food packaging and non-stick coating.

"You also have all this solid waste that can contain PFAS, or whatever anyone has landfilled," Rusinek said.

Some states are working on decreasing the 70 ppt health advisory levels for PFAS, because even trace levels can be harmful, Rusinek said. The amount of PFAS at 70 ppt is comparable to three eye-droppers full of water in an Olympic-size pool.

Remediation tactics

Several strategies are being tested and used to remove PFAS from contaminated areas, but most tactics still produce harmful byproducts.

"At the end of the day we're either just moving it around or burning it and putting it in the air, so we still need another piece to the puzzle," Rusinek said.

That is where electrochemical oxidation techniques such as the boron-doped diamond electrodes come in, as a complementary way to treat wastewater byproducts from PFAS decontamination. The MSU-Fraunhofer team has a viable solution to treat PFAS wastewater that is ready to be tested on a pilot scale, Rusinek said. The process breaks down the molecular bonds, cleaning the water while destroying the hazardous compounds.

"Depending on the success of the MSU-Fraunhofer system and other advances, it’s possible that this process could eventually become a complementary component of a municipal drinking water system," Rusinek said. "This system could be scaled up to treat hundreds if not thousands of gallons of water."

So far, studying the boron-doped diamond electrode method has been internally funded, and they are "significantly pursuing funding," Rusinek said. The research group is looking at a pilot system that could treat 10,000 liters at once, with an initial cost that could be $100,000 to $200,000 just to build.

"No treatment, including electrochemical oxidation, is going to be the sole solution," Rusinek said. "There is a lot of research and development that is still needed."

Rusinek is a scientist at the Michigan State University-Fraunhofer USA Inc. Center for Coatings and Diamond Technologies located at the East Lansing campus of MSU. He is the lead researcher in studying how boron-doped diamond electrodes can treat PFAS-contaminated wastewater.

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