“Forever” Chemicals: Forever No More

If you were tasked with destroying something called “forever chemicals”, chances are you’d be leaning towards rather harsh methods. Incineration would probably be on the table.

These so-called “forever chemicals”, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are a family of organic compounds where fluoride replaces hydrogens atoms on carbon chains. They are very water and oil repellent, which makes them ideal for use in non-stick cookware, stain-proof fabrics and fire-suppressing foams. Recent studies, however, show that exposure to PFAS is linked to a range of health issues—from increased cholesterol levels to some cancers. Even levels of PFAS present in drinking water in as low as parts per billion levels can pose risks to human health. These risks are exacerbated by the tendency for PFAS to bioaccumulate, or become concentrated in the tissues of humans and animals.

Methods do exist to filter out PFAS from water. But what do you do when it’s time to replace those filters? Simply throwing out PFAS-contaminated equipment just moves the problem to a landfill.

Person getting a glass of water from a kitchen faucet.

Instead, these “forever chemicals” need to be destroyed. Most existing strategies for breaking down PFAS use harsh conditions, such as incinerating PFAS residues in furnaces or oxidizing them in supercritical water—water that is at more than 37°C and 200atm of pressure. Now, scientists reporting in Science have discovered that such extreme methods may not be needed to destroy “forever chemicals” (1).

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How Fire Coral has an Edge Over Other Species in the Caribbean Reef

Coral reefs are the most productive marine ecosystem known, providing essential habitats and shelters for fish and other organisms. Additionally, they help protect coastlines, support economies, provide important food sources for local fisheries, and so much more. Coral reefs are ecologically essential—but are continuing to vanish. Fire coral (Millepora) brings new hope to this marine crisis due to their unusual ability to grow in two forms and survive under various habitat stresses.

Bladed fire coral (Millepora complanata) undersea, Caribbean Sea, Cuba, Playa Cueva de los peces
Bladed fire coral (Millepora complanata) undersea, Caribbean Sea, Cuba

What Is Fire Coral?

Fire coral has been around for millions of years and is most commonly found in sunny, shallow reefs. They tend to grow in tropical and subtropical waters with many thriving in different areas of the Caribbean Sea, one of the planet’s most biologically diverse ecosystems. Fire coral resembles typical stony corals but has a wicked sting that can cause burning skin reactions, reflecting their relationship as a close relative to jellyfish.

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