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Hope for Contaminated Military Bases: Innovative Approaches Aim to Eliminate PFAS Chemicals

— December 16, 2021

A coordinated approach from the federal government would put more wind in the sails of the researchers trying to find solutions.

Removing forever chemicals from the environment is not a simple task.

A group of artificial substances that can cause serious health problems in humans continues to threaten U.S. military bases. At least 704 military bases have been contaminated by decades of conventional military operations involving per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Scientists are working hard to better understand PFAS and develop technologies to minimize harm from these extraordinarily durable pollutants.

PFAS are a group of man-made substances, including PFOA, PFOS, and GenX. Exposure to high levels of PFAS may cause some forms of cancer and birth defects and decrease vaccine response in children. PFAS also affects the kidneys, liver, and immune system, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Products such as firefighting foam contain the chemicals. These substances earned the reputation as “forever chemicals” for their durability, but went unrecognized as pollutants for decades. Now that society is aware that they are an environmental concern, the race is on to develop technologies that can eliminate them.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), which is dealing with contaminated sites at military installations across the country, has budgeted US$40 million for PFAS research. The DoD has also formed partnerships with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and is also involved in several research projects aimed at helping to clean up PFAS-contaminated sites.

We may see more technologies developing, but the PFAS case may be a tough one to crack. For example, it took nearly a decade or more for scientists to figure out how to solve the case of chlorinated solvents in groundwater. Specialists thought they were impossible, but currently believe they’re nothing compared to PFAS.

Also, as part of the fiscal year 2021 DoD appropriations bill, Congress urged the secretary of defense to continue investments in research, particularly in studies that are related to decontaminating groundwater.

Using Synthetic Biology

There is a waste problem in the world and a solution hasn’t been unlocked yet. Where materials have reached their limits most times, some waste remediation companies intend to use the untapped resources of biology.

That is why new ventures are working to engineer microbes to get rid of PFAS in wastewater and soil. One current direction is to use recent advances in protein engineering and cell design to design biological processes that destroy environmental contaminants in wastewater and soil.

Using Nanotech and Microbes 

In a new project, researchers from the University at Buffalo and the University of Pittsburgh teamed up to use advanced mass spectrometry and computer modeling. The group seeks to develop advanced catalytic carbon-metal nanomaterials that react with and snip PFAS, to identify and isolate bacteria capable of digesting the molecular scraps.

The strength of this proposal is the team’s capability to understand the degradation process so they can optimize it. The study is funded by a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ Superfund Research Program.

Plasma Technology

Another emerging approach is using superheated gases to attack and destroy PFAS with enhanced contact electrical discharge plasma technology. The technology is designed by two professors at Clarkson University in New York, specialized in chemical and biomolecular engineering and civil and environmental engineering.

The technology is developed with funding from the EPA and DoD for the above-ground treatment of contaminated groundwater. 

Recently, the team tested the technology in Ohio, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where PFAS has seeped into the local aquifer. Contaminated water enters at one end a 16-foot trailer that contains plasma technology. Inside, high-voltage electricity forms bubbles in the water that the PFAS sticks to. When the bubbles float to the surface, the reactor turns the PFAS into less harmful compounds. 

In minutes, the reactor reduced the PFAS concentration in the container of water to below detectable amounts. The reactor can currently treat 10 gallons per minute.

Given the various emerging PFAS remediation technologies and the research that’s being done across the nation, we should be optimistic that scientists will find a solution to destroy the pollutants.

But the EPA continues to deal with PFOA and PFOS, it still doesn’t have a maximum contaminant level for them and needs to issue a national strategy. A coordinated approach from the federal government would put more wind in the sails of the researchers trying to find solutions.

Because of the high concentrations of PFAS used in the film-forming foam (AFFF), military veterans who lived and worked on particular military bases may be at risk of developing certain conditions. The military has used the AFFF since the 1970s for training exercises and to extinguish high-hazard flammable liquid and gas fires. Recently, the Pentagon has found that according to limited human studies, PFOS and PFOA may be associated with:

Veteran in blue jeans standing by military backpack, boots, and an American Flag; image by Benjamin Faust, via
Veteran in blue jeans standing by military backpack, boots, and an American Flag; image by Benjamin Faust, via
  • Prostate, kidney, and testicular cancer
  • Increased cholesterol
  • Changes to the immune system
  • Increased uric acid levels
  • Changes in liver enzymes
  • Developmental delays in fetuses & children 
  • Decreased fertility.

Currently, military veterans who feel they were exposed to contaminated groundwater at one of the military bases listed on the Pentagon’s report and have experienced one of the conditions may be eligible for compensation from the VA.

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