Scientists: PFAS and COVID-19 don't mix

Research has shown exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances can impact human immune systems, and may also impact antibody responses to vaccines


Sheri McWhirter
The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Some scientists are raising concerns about the implications PFAS exposure may have on those who fall ill with COVID-19, as well as those who get vaccinated.

A federal health agency is investigating whether there is a link between so-called "forever chemicals" and both the intensity of COVID-19 infections and the effectiveness of the recently developed vaccine against the pandemic disease.

Officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said research has shown exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances can impact human immune systems, and may also impact antibody responses to vaccines. Scientists at the agency said they are studying it further in light of the pandemic.

The CDC has research underway to study coronavirus among health care workers and emergency responders. Federal scientists will measure PFAS levels in the participants to determine a link between the chemicals in their blood and the risk of coronavirus infection and contracting COVID-19, documents show.

"It does mean that they have a higher risk of getting sick," said Jamie DeWitt, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University.

She and other scientists this week discussed with reporters how exposure to immunotoxicant PFAS chemicals may be a factor in the ongoing pandemic. They are concerned people with high levels of bio-accumulated PFAS chemicals in their bodies may be among those who get most sick, should they contract the novel coronavirus.

DeWitt said the concern is exposure to PFAS chemicals and resulting suppressed immune systems could lead to more severe reactions among those who do become infected with COVID-19, such as greater need for intensive care or even death.

Linda Birnbaum, the retired director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program, said during Thursday's video conference call that nearly all COVID-19 risk factors — save for advanced age — can be impacted by exposure to PFAS.

"And everyone in America has measurable amounts in their bodies," she said Thursday.

The scientists said they also worry exposure to PFAS over long periods or at high levels may reduce people's response to the COVID-19 vaccine.

"But we still want people to get vaccinated," DeWitt said, explaining inoculations remain a key weapon in the pandemic battle.

Tasha Stoiber, senior scientist with nonprofit Environmental Working Group, suggested special pandemic consideration may be appropriate for those exposed to PFAS chemicals.

She advised that health authorities may consider moving those exposed to PFAS up the priority list for COVID-19 inoculation and perhaps even offer them extra vaccine booster doses to ensure adequate antibody response.

Stoiber said the best way for people to minimize their PFAS exposure is to; reduce household consumer products laden with the chemicals; reduce the use of take-out containers that often contain PFAS; investigate drinking water sources for PFAS contamination; and, advocate for the end of non-necessary uses and the industrial discharge of the pollutant into the environment.

PFAS make up a group of thousands of man-made chemicals used in both consumer and industrial products, including non-stick cookware, waterproof fabrics and firefighting foam.

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(c)2020 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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