Man-Made Chemicals Could Affect Your COVID Response, Vaccine Results

December 18, 2020 by Kate Michael
PFAS leaching into the nation's water supply has long been a major concern to health officials.

WASHINGTON — Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are man-made chemicals known to have a toxic effect on the immune system. PFAS like PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and others are manufactured and used in a variety of industries worldwide, including products for personal care and household uses, like clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging, heat-resistant non-stick cooking surfaces, and the insulation of electrical wire. 

Known adverse effects of PFAS have led the United States to phase out manufacture of certain PFAS chemicals, yet they are still imported in consumer goods and, due to their unrelenting chemical nature, can still be found all over the world.

As the environmental contaminants in PFAS not only have an effect on public health but could directly affect an individual’s response to COVID and the efficacy of vaccine treatment, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, held a briefing on the latest science related to these “forever chemicals.” 

Scientists, led by Dr. Birnbaum, the former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program, spoke directly to PFAS’s effect on COVID and vaccine efficiency. 

“The carbon-fluorine bond is one of the strongest bonds that exist. There’s no easy way to break it down or get rid of it,” admitted Birnbaum, explaining why PFAS do not degrade in the environment. And with over 9,000 of these chemicals intentionally synthesized, they are all over the world.

“Over 98% of Americans have measurable PFAS in their body,” Birnbaum said, entering through “every route of human exposure,” including food, breathing, and contaminants in drinking water. 

“And PFAS cause a plethora of adverse health effects,” said Birnbaum, listing weakened immune systems; thyroid, liver, kidney, and pancreas toxicity; increased risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes; concerns to reproductivity and neurodevelopment, as well as cancer as effects from exposure to this diverse group of chemicals. 

The CDC has expressed concern with PFAS and has been measuring PFAS in blood levels to better understand their effects. Recent studies suggest that communities exposed to high levels of PFAS may have been more vulnerable during the pandemic and that PFAS could affect the efficacy of receiving a COVID vaccine.

“We see all of these effects in animals and our model systems that we study,” said Birnbaum.

“The normal role of the immune system is to protect us from pathogens,” said Dr. Jamie DeWitt, associate professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at East Carolina University. DeWitt explained that when the normal immune function can’t rise to a particular challenge, it is considered suppressed; when the immune system is hypersensitive, it is over-stimulated. “This plays a critical role in our physiology.”

“When chemicals lead to these [immune system] changes, we consider them to be immunotoxicants,” she said. “Multiple studies have determined with strongest evidence that PFAS suppress vaccine response in people. Other PFAS studied also have effects on the immune system. Some people exposed to PFAS will have immunosuppression…” which she said will mean they are sick more often and at higher risk of developing diseases, perhaps including COVID, as well as having a more severe reaction if infected. These people could also risk a lower response to the COVID vaccine.

And not only are some individuals at higher risk, but entire communities in the United States also have greater exposure to PFAS due to their location near industrial facilities or atmospheric transport of PFAS. 

“It is nearly impossible to avoid PFAS exposure,” said Dr. Tasha Stoiber, senior scientist at EWG. “[But] during this pandemic and every other day, it’s important that people are aware of PFAS in their daily lives.”

To reduce exposure, Stoiber suggests filtering drinking water, eating out less and avoiding take-out containers, and reducing exposure to plastics and styrofoam.

“It’s a failure of chemical regulation that PFAS are so [prevalent] in our lives,” said Stoiber.

While the CDC has been routinely measuring for about 16 PFAS and includes bio-monitoring data in its biannual report card, Stoiber and her colleague Melanie Benesh, EWG’s legislative attorney, believe government action could further reduce industrial discharges into the environment, clean existing pollution, and remove PFAS from drinking water. They were hopeful to see that the Biden/Harris campaign included an intention to address PFAS contamination in its Environmental Justice Plan.

While no definitive link has connected PFAS with a greater risk of contracting COVID or reduced COVID vaccine efficacy yet, EWG and briefing scientists believe there is merit in asking additional questions about increased risk of severe illness during this pandemic. 

“No link has been cemented, but the risk is real,” offered DeWitt. “We want all people to be protected and have a fully functioning immune system.” 

But despite any chance of reduced effectiveness, she and colleagues emphasized that everyone should get vaccinated as soon as vaccines are available to them. It is possible that an individual with immunosuppression due to PFAS may respond better to one type of vaccine than another, and multiple versions of the COVID vaccine are being manufactured. 

Said DeWitt, “[Vaccines will still] give them a weapon and a chance in their battle against COVID.”

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