An Australian company has worked out how to permanently destroy so-called "forever chemicals" that have left a toxic legacy at defence sites, airports and dumps across the nation, such as has been found at Williamtown and Fullerton Cove in the NSW Hunter region.
The PFAS family of chemicals includes more than 4000 manufactured substances that can be found in everything from make-up and household cleaning products to firefighting foam and hydraulic fluid for aircraft.
They're commonly called forever chemicals because they don't naturally break down, can travel long distances in water and air currents, and accumulate in soil, water, animals and humans.
PFAS chemicals are toxic to some animals, and lab-based studies have suggested they may cause cancer with prolonged, high-level exposure.
But the jury is still out on human health effects.
In the absence of definitive research, the federal government has told Australians to minimise exposure.
Meanwhile, it's spending vast sums of money remediating defence force sites where firefighting foam has contaminated ground and surface water, and in dealing with damage claims from neighbouring landholders.
Traditional clean-up methods involve concentrating and then extracting PFAS, with the nasties then sent to landfill or incinerated. But neither is a permanent solution for fluorine, the molecule that stops PFAS from breaking down.
Australian company Synergen Met says it now has a complete solution - a more efficient, high-volume way to concentrate PFAS from contaminated liquids, and a ground-breaking plasma-based technology to bond problematic fluorine.
The end products - sodium fluoride or calcium fluoride - are not toxic and can be safely processed by wastewater treatment plants.
The first unit is now operating in Australia after a successful testing program involving the University of Queensland.
Synergen Met founder and CEO Christopher Dunks hopes the scalable solution, which can continuously process vast volumes of contaminated water, will soon be in use across the country and in the United States.
He says many Australians would be aware PFAS contamination is an issue at defence and industrial sites, but may not understand how ubiquitous it is.
"PFAS is in every waste dump, in the leachate. It's in every wastewater treatment plant, and it ends up in the sludge that comes out. All that has PFAS in it," he says.
"Then they've got to decide what to do with all that solid material."
University of Queensland Professor Victor Rudolph believes the technology will have a big impact around the world.
In addition to destroying a highly problematic contaminant, he said the ability to cost-effectively concentrate PFAS on a commercial scale was also a game changer.
The system uses transportable treatment pods - a shipping container-style set up involving pumps and water tanks. If it's a big job involving large volumes of water, more pods can be brought in to scale up the operation.
Australia's PFAS problem has already cost the government dearly.
In 2020, it agreed to pay $212.5 million to landholders affected by PFAS contamination at air force bases at Williamtown in NSW, Katherine in the Northern Territory and Oakey in Queensland.
Others have since joined class actions associated with eight other sites, with those matters expected to go to trial next year.
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