New Method to Detect PFAS, The ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Under 3 Minutes

PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” for good reason: the man-made compounds, which can take thousands of years to disintegrate and are used in everything from grease-resistant food packaging to water-repellent clothes, have found their way into nearly half of the United States’ tap water supply.

Detecting PFAS

In a study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, chemists at the New Jersey Institute of Technology revealed a new lab-based method for detecting amounts of PFAS from food packaging materials, water, and soil samples in three minutes or less.

Researchers believe their approach could significantly accelerate efforts to study and address PFAS bioaccumulation in the environment, including more than $2 billion in EPA grant funding from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Act for states to conduct water quality testing and treatment for the emerging contaminants.

“There are thousands of different species of PFAS, but we’ve yet to understand the extent of their distribution in our environment because current testing methods are costly and time-consuming, taking hours for sample preparation and analysis in some cases,” said Hao Chen, the study’s corresponding author and NJIT chemistry professor. “What our study demonstrates is a much faster, sensitive and versatile method that can monitor our drinking water, land and consumer products for contamination in minutes.”

Also read : What are PFAS? The “Forever Chemicals”

The New Method

According to Chen and colleagues, the new method, which uses an ionization technique to analyze the molecular composition of sample materials known as paper spray mass spectrometry (PS-MS), is 10-100 times more sensitive than the current standard technique for PFAS testing, liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry.

“PFAS can be ionized and rapidly detected by a high-resolution mass spectrometer, which gives a clear view of each PFAS species present and the degree of contamination down to a parts-per-trillion (ppt) level,” Chen said.

“For more complex matrices, such as soil, we used a related technology known as desalting paper spray mass spectrometry (DPS-MS), which removes salts that ordinarily reduce the PFAS ion signal. Together, they significantly boost our ability to detect these chemicals.”

“Our limit of detection for PFAS is approximately 1ppt. Md. Tanim-Al Hassan, the paper’s primary author and Ph.D. chemistry student at NJIT, compared the quantity to a drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

In experiments, the team was able to detect PFAS in one minute or less by directly testing portions of various food packaging materials, such as microwave popcorn paper, instant noodle boxes, and fry and burger packaging from two global fast food restaurants.

The research found levels of 11 distinct PFAS compounds, including common ones associated to increased cancer risk and immune system suppression, such as PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic Acid) and PFOS (Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid).

In their water analysis, the scientists found evidence of PFOA in samples of local tap water in under two minutes, but no traces of PFAS in samples from the university’s filtered fountain.

“The EPA has already proposed to establish maximum contamination levels (MCLs) for six PFAS in drinking water nationwide, and PFOA and PFOS are among them,” said Mengyan Li, study co-author and NJIT associate professor of environmental sciences. “This analytical method could facilitate more intensive screenings for toxic PFAS that may be needed under such a proposal to protect the safety of our water supply.”

The scientists used DPS-MS to identify two PFAS species from as low as 40mg of soil in under three minutes.

Already, the team’s quick detection technology is being tested in conjunction with cutting-edge PFAS remediation procedures developed at NJIT’s BioSMART Center.

“Remarkably, in our lab, we were able to couple this analytical method to a novel degradation catalyst, which degrades 98.7% of PFAS in drinking water samples within three hours,” said Wunmi Sadik, research co-author and chair of NJIT’s Department of Chemistry and Environmental Sciences.

Also read more article about breakthrough

The Research Benefit

“This work may have national implications, but the immediate impact will be felt in the Northeast. Approximately 10% of New Jersey’s 9.2 million residents had elevated amounts of perfluorooctanoic acid in their drinking water, compared to the national average of 1.9%.

Chen believes the advancement might have an immediate impact on consumer product monitoring, ranging from cosmetics and pharmaceuticals to fresh and processed foods. The team intends to demonstrate the method’s capability for air monitoring as well.

“Near term, this could be extremely useful for ensuring the safety of food products … it may allow farming produce to be more efficiently monitored for PFAS contamination for example,” Chen went on to say. “Our method may also advance the study of airborne PFAS in a similar way to what we’ve demonstrated in this study, which would further help us address this widespread environmental issue.”