Nontargeted mass spectrometry reveals PFAS substitutes in New Jersey soils

June 04, 2020

Using a nontargeted mass-spectral approach, researchers identified the presence of chloro-perfluoro-polyether-carboxylate compounds (ClPFPECAs) in soils across the state of New Jersey. According to the new study, the previously unidentified chemicals - likely used as a substitute for highly toxic and environmentally persistent poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) - provide insight into the nature of proprietary industrial chemicals in use, and for which their environmental impact and toxicity remain unknown. PFAS have been widely used in creating nonstick and waterproof coatings, including Teflon. Due to concerns surrounding their toxicity and environmental persistence, many chemical manufacturers agreed to work toward the elimination of PFAS's harmful underlying compounds, prompting the need to develop "safer" alternatives. However, little is known about the nature nor risks of next-generation PFAS substitutes, as most compounds are treated as confidential industry secrets. Nevertheless, environmental chemists have been seeking to describe their molecular formulas using nontargeted, high-resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS) to identify chemical traces in the surrounding landscape. Using this approach, John Washington and colleagues evaluated soil samples from across New Jersey and detected the unexpected presence of ten different ClPFPECAs - at least three of which were identified in all samples, as well as in a sample from a site more than 400 kilometers away. Comparison of the ClPFPECA congeners discovered by Washington et al. with a similar compound identified in Italy suggest that the nearby chemical manufacturer, Solvay, was the source of the ClPFPECAs - where it is used as a PFAS alternative. Its widespread distribution throughout the northeast U.S. suggests atmospheric release and transportation.

In a related Policy Forum, Steve Gold and Wendy Wagner evaluate chemical regulation regarding ClPFPECAs in the U.S. and Europe. Gold and Wagner illustrate key limitations and shortcomings in current regulatory programs that have led to a dearth of publicly available information concerning the risks of these compounds as well as the extent to which they're being managed. "The toxicological mysteries of ClPFPECAs - and thousands of other potentially toxic chemicals that are regulated (or perhaps not regulated) in ways that remain effectively inscrutable - suggest that we have a long way to do in designing effective and accountable chemical regulation, particularly in the United States," Gold and Wagner write.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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