A new compilation of research into how toxic PFAS chemicals affect the human immune system finds suppressed immune function, lower vaccine effectiveness, hypersensitivity and greater risk of autoimmune diseases.
Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that advocates for tighter curbs on the chemicals nationwide, reviewed previously published research, and found evidence that PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) — which are widespread in New Jersey — impair the body’s ability to fight infections, especially among children.
The studies include one from the National Toxicology Program which concluded in 2016 that there was a “high level of evidence” that the chemicals PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), two of the most widely studied of the PFAS family, suppress antibody response, based on animal testing.
This month, a study of 237 African children found their antibody response to the measles vaccine was reduced by about a quarter among those who had been exposed to even low levels of PFOA and PFOS.
“The developing immune system may be particularly vulnerable to immunotoxicity in the earliest stages of life, so it is essential to protect children’s health from PFAS during that time,” EWG said in a statement.
Lower response to flu shots
In adults, the presence of PFAS chemicals in the blood was associated with a decreased response to influenza shots and tetanus-diphtheria boosters, according to another study in 2014.
In New Jersey, environmental officials have adopted the nation’s strictest drinking-water standard on PFNA — another PFAS chemical — and are in the process of imposing similarly tough standards for PFOA and PFOS, chemicals that have been found in the Garden State more often and in higher concentrations than in many other places.
Apart from cancer, immune system effects were the most sensitive to the chemicals of a range of health conditions studied, Department of Environmental Protection scientists concluded in their study recommending an enforceable health limit for PFOS in June 2018.
That paper argued for setting a health-based maximum contaminant limit (MCL) in light of PFOS toxicity shown by animal studies, together with evidence of its effects on humans, and its resistance to environmental breakdown.
New Jersey’s pioneering work on PFAS has been led by the Drinking Water Quality Institute, a panel of scientists and water company executives that advises the Department of Environmental Protection. The DWQI’s chairman, Dr. Keith Cooper, said the panel is aware of the studies cited by EWG but has no plans to revisit its pending recommendations for health limits on PFOA and PFOS, which are being considered by the DEP.
No federal standards
The New Jersey Department of Health said it too is monitoring the effects of PFAS chemicals including their impact on the immune system. “PFAS have been associated with decreased antibody response following vaccination,” said Nicole Kirgan, a spokeswoman for the department.
At the federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency does not set national enforceable standards for any PFAS chemicals but says it intends to begin regulating PFOA and PFOS by the end of 2019.
In addition to their impact on the human immune system, PFAS chemicals are linked to health conditions including some cancers, thyroid hormone disruption and low birth weights, according to the EPA.
The review was prompted by the prominence of immune-system effects among the range of health impacts from the chemicals, said Dr. Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist with EWG.
“One of the most sensitive systems in the body that’s affected by PFAS exposure is the immune system, so we just wanted to review the most current studies that are out there,” she said. “This is a really important set of studies that need to be looked at when we’re thinking about setting benchmarks for drinking water.”
Some of the chemicals have been phased out by U.S. manufacturers as more becomes known about their health effects but they are widespread in the environment because they do not biodegrade. They are still imported into the U.S. in foreign-made products such as carpets, textiles and paper, and are present in the blood of virtually every American, scientists say.
Public health failure?
A paper by Harvard University researcher Philippe Grandjean in 2018 accused U.S. public health authorities of failing to regulate the chemicals over many years despite growing evidence that they were associated with immunotoxicity and a range of illnesses.
And it urged regulators to ensure the safety of a new generation of PFAS chemicals manufactured by the “GenX” technology that are replacing chemicals like PFOA as more becomes known about the toxicity of the latter.
“Given the substantial delays in discovery of PFAS toxicity, in dissemination of findings, and in regulatory decisions, PFAS substitutes and other persistent industrial chemicals should be subjected to prior scrutiny before widespread usage,” the paper said.