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.”

In The News

Health

Voting

Health

Striking Vulnerability to COVID-19 Found in Diabetics
Research
Striking Vulnerability to COVID-19 Found in Diabetics
July 22, 2021
by Reece Nations

One of the more disturbing trends of the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is the susceptibility of diabetic Americans to the virus. Researchers at The University of Texas at El Paso conducted a study that indicates unmanaged diabetes is a decisive element of COVID-19 severity and complications,... Read More

Global Summit Leaders Aim to End Sexual Exploitation
Mental Health
Global Summit Leaders Aim to End Sexual Exploitation
July 21, 2021
by Alexa Hornbeck

The Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation Online Global Summit, hosted by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, is holding a week-long event, July 20-24, that brings together professionals from sexual abuse and exploitation sectors to discuss how to connect, educate and solve the tangled web of... Read More

Pandemic Drives Largest Drop in Life Expectancy Since WWII
Health
Pandemic Drives Largest Drop in Life Expectancy Since WWII
July 21, 2021
by Dan McCue

U.S. life expectancy fell by a year and a half in 2020, the largest overall decline since World War II, the Centers for Disease Control reported Wednesday. The decline to 77.3 years was driven by the coronavirus pandemic, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics said.... Read More

McConnell Urges Americans: 'Get Vaccinated' as Cases Spike
Health
McConnell Urges Americans: 'Get Vaccinated' as Cases Spike

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell implored unvaccinated Americans Tuesday to take the COVID-19 shot, issuing a stark and grave warning of a repeat of last year's rising caseloads and shutdowns if people refuse to protect themselves from the coronavirus. McConnell urged Americans to... Read More

Canada to Let Vaccinated US Citizens Enter Country on Aug. 9
Health
Canada to Let Vaccinated US Citizens Enter Country on Aug. 9

TORONTO (AP) — Canada announced Monday it will begin letting fully vaccinated U.S. citizens into Canada on Aug. 9, and those from the rest of the world on Sept. 7. Officials said the 14-day quarantine requirement will be waived as of Aug. 9 for eligible travelers... Read More

Data Shows ‘Major Backsliding’ in Routine Childhood Vaccinations
Health
Data Shows ‘Major Backsliding’ in Routine Childhood Vaccinations
July 19, 2021
by Alexa Hornbeck

The World Health Organization and UNICEF recently released data regarding the state of vaccinations across the world showing that there has been a major backsliding in childhood vaccinations. “Vaccination coverage had stalled for a number of years, but this year we saw an actual slip in... Read More

News From The Well
scroll top