PFAS lurking in US water supply as U of Illinois researchers develop filter technology

U of I researchers design electrode that captures short-chain PFAS from water

ByJudy Hsu and Blanca Rios WLS logo
Thursday, April 20, 2023
PFAS lurking in Evanston water, dozens of other IL cities: data
PFAS, or per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are man-made "forever chemicals" linked to a broad spectrum of health problems, including cancer.

EVANSTON, Ill. (WLS) -- Toxic "forever chemicals" are lurking in our water sources across the country, including some parts of the Midwest.

According to a new analysis by the ABC 7 Data Team, at least 143 million Americans are possibly drinking, bathing and cleaning with tap water from water systems where some level of these chemicals has been detected.

But now, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a group of University of Illinois scientists are taking steps to protect the water we use.

PFAS, or per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are human-made chemicals linked to a broad spectrum of health problems, including cancer and thyroid issues.

They're also known as "forever chemicals" because they don't break down and accumulate in the environment and in humans.

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"They're used in basically all aspects of modern life," said Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Professor Xiao Su at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

PFAS are used to make non-stick cookware, firefighting foam and even lipstick and other cosmetics.

Professor Su and a team of researchers at U of I are working to design an electrode that can attract and capture a range of a new breed of these "forever chemicals" called short-chain PFAS.

"Because they're shorter, they have higher mobility in the environment so that means they travel faster in the aquatic systems," said Su. "The main problem is that short chains are somehow more difficult to capture."

Last month, the EPA moved to impose new limits on forever chemicals in drinking water, requiring water systems to find ways to fix the problem.

Su said that while right now their work is fundamental, their goal is to create real-world solutions for communities and the average consumer.

At home, it would look something like a water pitcher filter with an added electrical component.

"At the end of the day you end up with a little box that has a voltage source, water would come in with PFAS and clean water would come out," said Su.

Evanston is among dozens of Illinois communities that have tested positive for measurable levels of PFAS.

"Evanston's number right now is below what U.S. EPA is proposing," said Darrel King, Water Production Bureau chief for the City of Evanston. "Evanston acknowledges concerns with all contaminants and their presence regarding safe drinking water."

Evanston is now looking at ways to combat PFAS, but most options will most likely be very costly.

"These are multimillion dollar, potentially, projects that utilities will have to figure out how to pay for as well as how to maintain and replace," King said.

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In the meantime, Professor Su and his team hope to see their work put to the test.

"We really want to make an impact," said Su. "To see it being used in your home or at the end of pipe for water treatment plant."