by XiaoZhi Lim
Researchers are struggling to assess the dangers of nondegradable compounds used in clothes, foams and food wrappings.
A few times every year, Christopher Higgins’s laboratory in Golden, Colorado, receives a special delivery in the mail. Inside an ice-box, Higgins finds several vials, each holding up to 250 millilitres of water collected from boreholes near US military bases. The water looks unremarkable, but it is contaminated with synthetic compounds called fluorochemicals, which have been generating increasing concern around the world. This class of chemical has shown up in worrying concentrations in rivers, soils and people’s bloodstreams from Europe to Australia. Some of the oldest compounds have been studied and banned, but new, mystery types are appearing all the time. Higgins’ team, at the Colorado School of Mines, is one of several environmental-chemistry labs being funded by the US Department of Defense to work out the chemicals’ structures. “I think they are one of the most complex groups of pollutants out there,” he says.