A powerful chemical analysis tool helps unravel the complexities of harmful PFAS

PFAS, a family of thousands of man-made chemicals, are everywhere, and some of them are known to be harmful to our bodies and the environment. What’s even scarier is how little we know about these ubiquitous pollutants found in everything from food packaging and cleaning products to fire-fighting foams.

A team of researchers, including Jens Blotevogel of Colorado State University, are using one of the world’s most powerful chemical analysis tools to unravel the complexities of PFAS. They strive to characterize and catalog the thousands and thousands of chemical compounds in the PFAS family, so that future studies can find solutions to health and environmental impacts.

“We’re not just trying to solve the chemical complexity of PFAS, we’re also opening doors for researchers who want to look at processing, environmental fate and transport, and toxicology,” said Blotevogel, Professor research assistant in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “It gives people the most powerful magnifying glass possible to untangle these processes.

PFAS need further investigation because we don’t even know how many there are. A study by Blotevogel and collaborators Posted in Environmental science and technology in January found evidence to suggest there could be many more than the thousands already identified.

A tight-knit family

PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Their carbon-fluorine chemical bond is one of the strongest in nature, earning them the nickname “chemicals forever”.

They persist in nature and in us. Studies have shown PFAS in the blood people and animals around the world.

“The first step is to understand what species are there, and then you can determine the environmental impacts and try to fix them, but you have to know the chemistry,” said Amy McKenna, CSU Department of Soils Affiliate. and Crop Sciences and Environmental Analytical Chemist at the NSF-funded National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Florida.

One-of-a-kind instrument

McKenna is familiar with the best tool for analyzing complex mixtures: the 21 Tesla Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometer (21T FT-ICR MS) at the National High Magnetic Field Lab. A far cry from your usual scale, mass spectrometers use electric and magnetic fields to distinguish between individual molecules, which weigh less than a trillionth of a trillionth of an ounce.

MagLab’s advanced mass spectrometer is the most powerful and resolute machine in its class. It can differentiate between individual chemical compounds more accurately than any other instrument.

“It’s powerful enough to be able to see all these different PFAS molecules, but it’s also powerful enough to select them from environmental samples that contain many thousands of naturally occurring compounds,” said Robert Young, a CSU alumnus and director of the ‘Chemical analysis. and Instrumentation Laboratory at New Mexico State University.

The samples analyzed for their recent study came from PFAS-contaminated sites and each contained around 10,000 to 30,000 compounds – many man-made chemicals on a background of natural organic matter. MagLab’s unique instrument measures mass so precisely that researchers can determine the elemental composition of many compounds present.

Access to such a specialized instrument is limited, but the team catalogs its findings in a database of PFAS compounds so that others can use their results. They released a PFAS library with a report detailing their new method of analysis based on their work to date for the US Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program.

“We want to leverage the power of ion cyclotron resonance to provide a service to the scientific community by building a catalog of PFAS compounds that they can use as a tool to develop methods that do not rely on 21T FT-ICR MS. “, McKenna mentioned.

Shedding light on chemical dark matter

Most environmental surveys only look for about 15 to 30 well-known PFAS compounds, Blotevogel said, but there could be other potentially dangerous compounds hidden in “dark matter” that we don’t see.

“What if there was a black swan among these strangers?” he said.

MagLab’s powerful mass spectrometer allows them to find the unknowns, determine their chemical formulas, and save them for future research.

Researchers are not only interested in the composition of PFAS compounds, they also want to know how these compounds change in the environment. Some compounds can change from harmless to harmful when they break down or are mixed with other compounds.

Only by understanding what the compounds are and what they become can we determine if they are dangerous and how to clean them up. First, we need to know what we’re looking for, and that’s where Blotevogel, McKenna, Young and their team break new ground.

“The long-term goal is to help identify these things so others know what to look for,” Young said. “Once we know what to look for, we can focus on understanding health and environmental impacts, and prioritizing treatment or regulatory solutions.”

Reference: Young RB, Pica NE, Sharifan H, et al. PFAS analysis with ultra-high resolution 21T FT-ICR MS: Suspicious and untargeted screening with unparalleled mass resolving power and accuracy. Environ Sci Technology. 2022. do: 10.1021/acs.est.1c08143

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