Study: Removing PFAS will cost more than global GDP at current emission rates

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Thousands of take-away coffee cups wait to be recycled at James Cropper recycling plant in Kendal, England.
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Updated: March 12, 2:30 p.m. | Posted: March 11, 3:15 p.m.

New regulations are in place in Minnesota to crack down on forever chemicals.

PFAS are a large class of human-made chemicals originally developed in Minnesota by 3M back in the 1940s. Some PFAS have been linked to health effects, including some types of cancers, thyroid disease and low birth weight.

Starting this year, PFAS are banned from food and beverage packaging such as take-out containers and microwave popcorn packages. That list will grow next year to include carpeting, cookware, cosmetics and more. And by 2032, nearly every intentional use of PFAS will be banned in Minnesota.

But is it that easy to completely remove the chemicals from our lives? New research from a University of St. Thomas professor estimated the cost of removing PFAS from the environment, highlighting the need for bans like Minnesota’s.

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Professor Ali Ling joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to share her findings.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: New regulations are in place in Minnesota to crack down on what are known as forever chemicals. You may remember PFAS are a large class of human-made chemicals originally developed by Minnesota-based 3M back in the 1940s. Some PFAS have been linked to types of cancer, thyroid disease, and low birth weight among other problems.

Starting this year, PFAS are banned from food and beverage packaging, such as takeout containers and microwave popcorn packages, but that list is going to grow next year to include carpeting, cookware, cosmetics, and more. And by 2032, nearly every intentional use of PFAS will be banned in the state of Minnesota.

But is it easy to completely remove the chemicals from our lives? New research from University of St. Thomas Professor Ali Ling looks at what it would take to truly get rid of PFAS. The professor's on the line. Thanks for taking the time.


CATHY WURZER: There are new regulations and litigation to stop the production of PFAS, as you know, but there are there are few if any replacements for all of its uses. Products with PFAS are still being produced. It doesn't stop immediately. What rate do we need to be removing PFAS from the environment to get rid of them?

ALI LING: Yeah. Well, it's pretty urgent. The main problem with PFAS is that they're very environmentally persistent, which means that any PFAS that we make today and that makes it into the environment stays there forever if someone doesn't actively remove and destroy it. I think the follow up question is, then, can we remove and destroy it as fast as we're making it? which is the question that I asked in my most recent study.

And the same type of chemistry that makes them really useful in products also makes them really expensive to destroy. So for the study, I estimated how many PFAS were making and emitting, and then I tried to estimate how much it would cost to remove it at that same rate. And there's a lot of uncertainty with these cost estimates, but it's pretty certain that it would cost more than the global GDP to do that.

There's not enough money in the world to remove PFAS from the environment as fast as we're adding it today, which means that these type of PFAS bans like we have in Minnesota are super urgent in order to not keep compounding the amount of PFAS in the environment and associated health risks for future generations.

CATHY WURZER: So we're going to need to slow the rate that we're adding PFAS into the environment for starters.

ALI LING: Yeah, and by quite a lot. A 50% reduction is not going to do it. It needs to be like a 99.99% reduction in how much PFAS we're making and using in order to have that number be small enough that treatment can actually make a dent in it.

CATHY WURZER: But as you mentioned, there are few if any replacements for all the uses that we use PFAS for, so I would think that would be an issue for companies.

ALI LING: Yeah, and that's a challenge. So the Minnesota PFAS ban is set up such that by 2025, it will ban intentionally added PFAS in 11 different product categories, some of which you just mentioned, and then there's a seven year timeline with targeting adding additional categories in 2032.

So this is a place that is ripe for scientific innovation, and it's an area called green chemistry where scientists are looking into and manufacturers are looking into putting into their supply chain alternate chemistries that have similar performance but without the persistence of PFAS that causes so much problems in the environment with our health.

CATHY WURZER: That sounds positive. But I have to say, your research kind of paints a grim picture, and I'm feeling that PFAS might not be truly obsolete. Am I right?

ALI LING: Yeah, they're very useful. If you aren't being careful about the things you buy, you probably have PFAS right now in your clothes, your shoes, your makeup, your stuff you're cooking with, your food packaging. It's all around us. The fact that they're so ubiquitous and useful is going to make this PFAS ban that we have in Minnesota a challenge, but it's also exciting because we're really a global leader in this space.

I think my research has doubled down on the knowledge that this type of ban is really important, and I think Minnesota is in a really great place to be a world leader in making this happen and coming up with solutions that can be implemented elsewhere in the world.

CATHY WURZER: I'm trying to remember the story that we had last year. I believe it was the pollution control agency was touting cutting edge technology to take PFAS out of the environment. I don't know if you remember that story.


CATHY WURZER: OK. So there is actual technology that is workable at this point to take it out of the environment?

ALI LING: For sure. There definitely is. Another example is the City of Woodbury just put in a new water treatment plant to remove PFAS from their water, so there are technologies out there. For context, the cost to remove and destroy a pound of PFAS from the environment is around $1 million to $50 million per pound of this stuff.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. That is a lot. I'm wondering, who pays for something like that?

ALI LING: Yeah, and that's an ongoing question. It's an ongoing question of whether the manufacturers should pay. They're so ubiquitous in all the things we use. Everyone is buying them, and it's just a problem in our environment. So I think as much as we as consumers can use our purchasing power to support PFAS-free supply chains, we're accelerating that type of change.

CATHY WURZER: Now, if we don't act quickly, who will this have the biggest impact on? I'm thinking probably you're going to say young kids, right?

ALI LING: Yes. I think some of the health impact studies have emphasized the impacts on young kids. But to me, I'm a little bit worried about the health impacts right now. But what really worries me about PFAS is the potential health impacts for our grandchildren and our grandchildren's grandchildren if we keep making them because they just don't go away. So if there's health impacts now, it's going to be so much worse in 100 years.

CATHY WURZER: How are you using some of your research in your classes? I'm curious.

ALI LING: Yeah, that's a good question. So this is my first year teaching at St. Thomas. I came from working in consulting with companies that were dealing with PFAS. So the students in the classroom are very avid and excited to get out there and engineer a better world. But when I teach something that's as nuanced and complex as PFAS, I try to teach it in a way that's encouraging them to ask questions and think about the broader impacts of this type of problem.

So there's a lot of uncertainty in what the best ways to destroy it is, in terms of what the future of alternatives are, and trying to understand that it's not just engineers and scientists who are going to solve this problem. We're going to have to work together with policy. We're going to have to try to change consumer behavior. It's a really interdisciplinary problem that we're going to need interdisciplinary solutions for.

CATHY WURZER: Minnesota seems like it's a leader in dealing with PFAS, but do you see this hunger elsewhere across the country?

ALI LING: Yeah, for sure. There's a few other states. About 10 states have some sort of PFAS ban coming in, and then the FDA, the federal FDA, just put forth a ban for PFAS packaging across the country, which is great news. There's also a lot of work being done in Europe to help ban PFAS in a bunch of applications there, so the movement for this is growing.

CATHY WURZER: Final question here, and I find this to be true with almost every researcher I talk to. There's always a story behind the research. What's your story behind your PFAS research? What about this ignited your interest?

ALI LING: Yeah. So I came from nine years working in environmental consulting, and I was working with companies to help solve their PFAS problem, to help install these types of treatment systems that cost $1 million to $50 million per pound.

And just this realization that as engineers, we just want to treat it once it's out there. But in this case and this situation, we have to back up. We need to stop making and using as much of it because we just can't treat enough of it.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Professor, I wish I had more time. Thank you for your time here this afternoon.

ALI LING: Thanks, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: We've been talking to Professor Ali Ling at the University of St. Thomas. She's sharing her latest research on PFAS, also known as forever chemicals.

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