The technique, which requires relatively low temperatures and so-called common reagents, was developed by chemists in the United States and China.
Their work, published in the journal Scienceoffer a potential solution to a persistent problem for the environment, livestock and people.
Developed in the 1940s, PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are found in packaging, shampoos, non-stick pans and even make-up.
Due to their extremely slow disintegration, they have spread over time in our environment: water, soil, air, groundwater, lakes and rivers.
A Swedish study showed last week that rainwater was undrinkable everywhere on Earth due to too high a level of PFAS.
According to some studies, exposure to PFAS can have effects on fertility and fetal development. It can also lead to increased risks of obesity or certain cancers (prostate, kidneys and testicles) and an increase in cholesterol levels.
Current methods for degrading these pollutants require powerful treatments, such as very high temperature incineration or ultrasonic irradiation.
Their almost indestructible character is linked to the long carbon-fluorine bonds that compose them, among the strongest in organic chemistry.
Weaknesses to exploit
However, the researchers managed to detect a weakness in certain types of PFAS: at one end of their molecule, a group of oxygen atoms can be targeted by a solvent and a common reagent at average temperatures of 80 to 120 degrees Celsius.
This causes the entire molecule to collapse in a cascade of complex reactionsexplains William Dichtel, of Northwestern University, one of the authors of the study.
Scientists have also used powerful computational methods to map the quantum mechanics underlying these chemical reactions. Work that could one day be used to improve the method.
The current study focused on 10 PFAS, including a major pollutant named GenX, which contaminated the Cape Fear River in North Carolina.
However, there are more than 12,000
eternal chemicalsaccording to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
There are other kinds [de PFAS] which do not have the same Achilles heel, but each has its own weak pointemphasizes William Dichtel.
If we can identify it, then we will know how to activate it to destroy it.