UBC engineers find permanent solution for removing ‘forever chemicals’ from drinking water

Click to play video: 'UBC develops water treatment system to remove ‘forever chemicals’'
UBC develops water treatment system to remove ‘forever chemicals’
UBC researchers say they've made a breakthrough in eliminating so-called 'forever chemicals' from water. As Julie Nolin reports, the chemicals known as 'PFAS' are in thousands of products we use every day – Mar 22, 2023

Engineers at the University of British Columbia are celebrating the development of a new water treatment method that permanently removes a risky group of chemicals from drinking water.

Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are commonly known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t degrade easily in the environment or in human bodies. Water and oil repelling, they are used in products like non-stick cookware, cosmetics and toilet paper, but when ingested, may contribute to adverse health effects.

“When they get in our body, they accumulate. They don’t break down and they interfere with a lot of functions that our body does,” explained Madjid Mohseni, the UBC chemical and biological engineering professor who pioneered the new technology.

“We break it down totally. It’s like chopping the molecules to its small fragments … elemental forms that are no longer harmful.”

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According to U.S. Center for Disease Control, forever chemicals may increase the risk of kidney or testicular cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, and decreased vaccine response in children. They are no longer manufactured in Canada, but can leach into the waterways through use various products.

As it stands, they are usually removed from drinking water by filters that use activated carbon, but Mohseni said these tools don’t capture all of the forever chemicals — including some of the newer ones developed after the issue came to the attention of regulators in 2015.

Afterward, he added, those chemical-saturated filter materials are disposed of, leaving the PFAS in landfills to make their way back into the environment.

“We developed alternative absorbents to activated carbon that not only capture the long-chain PFAS, but also shorter-chain, so basically a wide spectrum of PFAS that might be in the water,” he explained. “Once we capture them, when they are saturated, we can regenerate.”

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According to Mohseni, his lab has “perfected” the art of removing forever chemicals from their new absorbent material, and then destroying them “for good” through an electrochemical process that severs their key molecular bonds. It’s even cheaper than other options currently on the market, he added.

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The absorbent technology could eventually be used in place of household tap filters, he said, although the breakdown of the chemicals would need to happen in a centralized facility. The team is preparing to pilot the new technology at several B.C. locations later this month.

“That’s the hope, for us to really make an impact to people’s lives and really support municipalities in their efforts to provide safe drinking water,” Mohseni told Global News.

Inder Singh, director of interagency projects and quality control at Metro Vancouver Water Services, called the research “promising.”

“The water industry in general has been keenly researching PFAS sources, implications for health and water types of treatment technologies are most viable,” he told Global News.

“It’s a source control issue, so keeping these products out of our environment as well as our drinking water — the best approach, obviously, is to extract sources of these from the products.”

Singh said repeated tests show Metro Vancouver has very low levels of forever chemicals in its water, compliant with guidelines for Canadian drinking water quality.

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