Scientific innovation contributes to progress and prosperity. Sometimes, we have the privilege of watching this evolution come full circle. A North Carolina company called 374Water has developed—and will be commercially producing and selling—a water filtration system that is able to convert toxic sludge into clean water, including the removal of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
The filter relies on supercritical water oxidation (SCWO), which, according to the company, is “an advanced oxidation method that handles a variety of organic wastes,” including biosolids, PFAS, drugs, microplastics, and pathogens.
This filtration system comes prefab, making it easy to ship, install, and operate. While the unit is just beginning to be produced and sold commercially, a smaller version has been operating at Duke University since 2015, where it successfully treats many different types of wastes, including firefighting foam containing PFAS.
These water filtration systems provide an opportunity to help safeguard public health, and may mitigate some of the calls for complete bans on the use of PFAS compounds, which are found in hundreds of household and commercial products. Moreover, the system offers the promise of a relatively affordable way to strike this balance.
The Jackson Hole Airport, for example, has pledged to provide complimentary drinking water filters to neighboring homes with water containing at least 10 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFAS. These PFAS elimination filters are estimated to cost $2,500 to $3,000 each, including installation. For many households, it costs more money to fix an air conditioning unit.
While more research is needed to determine the human health effects of PFAS at different levels of exposure—particularly from legacy compounds like PFOA and PFOS, which are the primary sources of concern to water supplies—heated debates over how to regulate PFAS compounds continue at state and federal levels.
The EPA is currently developing national primary drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS—a move that is backed by groups as diverse as the Environmental Working Group and the American Chemistry Council. While the search for regulatory guidelines based on validated scientific evidence should continue, the most immediate and effective PFAS elimination efforts may come from the scientific community itself.
The accidental invention of PFAS compounds decades ago resulted in innovations and inventions that have since become essential to modern daily life. Now, scientists are developing ways to mitigate the potential risks of these chemicals. That is full circle.