Scientists seek evidence that ‘forever chemicals’ hinder COVID-19 vaccines

Investigators say more work is needed on interaction of PFAS in blood and the coronavirus
Credit: (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) is “deeply concerned” about possible links between PFAS and COVID-19.

A public health expert urged people not to jump to conclusions about any links between COVID-19 and PFAS “forever chemicals” even though federal authorities are looking into whether newly available vaccines for the deadly virus are made less effective by the toxic chemicals in the bloodstream.

Dr. Robert Laumbach, a professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health, said there’s no proven link between the virus and the chemicals despite studies that show the efficacy of some other vaccines is reduced by the presence of blood-borne PFAS. Scientists say almost everyone has the chemicals in their blood because of the widespread and persistent presence of the chemicals in water and soil.

“We really don’t know anything people can do to reduce their risk [of PFAS in their blood] so this is not the kind of concern that we would want to raise alarms about from a public health point of view because people really can’t do anything about it, or about whether it affects their risk of getting COVID-19,” Laumbach said in an interview Tuesday.

Laumbach is leading a federally funded investigation into the chemicals’ effects on public health in the Gloucester County community of Paulsboro, where some of the country’s highest levels of PFAS have been found in public drinking water.

State environmental officials have blamed the contamination on Solvay Specialty Polymers, a chemical company in nearby West Deptford which previously used a PFAS chemical that is now subject to a strict state health limit, and is now using an unregulated substitute that researchers say is just as toxic.

Still, Laumbach said his team won’t be looking into any links between the virus and PFAS in the Paulsboro study because any such investigation would not fit into the study design.

The project, which is part of a multi-site investigation into PFAS and health around the country, aims to take blood from 1,300 people who may have been exposed to PFAS. The work was scheduled to start in early 2021 but its timing is now uncertain because of the pandemic, Laumbach said.

CDC is investigating

At a national level, though, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating whether PFAS in the blood makes someone more susceptible to infection with COVID-19, and whether the chemicals undermine the effectiveness of the vaccines.

An academic study published in October found an increased risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes in people with elevated levels of one form of PFAS called PFBA (perfluorobutanoic acid).

“The course of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) seems to be aggravated by air pollution, and some industrial chemicals, such as the perfluorinated alkylate substances (PFASs), are immunotoxic and may contribute as well,” it said.

Another report by the European Food Safety Authority, an European Union agency, in September found a decreased immune response to other vaccines among young children who were exposed to four different PFAS chemicals.

Given such evidence, some scientists say the next logical step is to study whether PFAS increases the chance of COVID-19 infection or its severity, or decreases the effectiveness of a COVID-19 vaccine. Others say it’s too early to draw any conclusions about whether PFAS worsens COVID-19 or impedes a vaccine.

NJ national leader on PFAS standards

In New Jersey, scientists’ risk assessment for PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), a common kind of PFAS, was based on a decreased immune system response in mice. The state has set strict standards for the presence of three PFAS chemicals in drinking water, and has become a national leader in regulating the substances that are linked to a range of illnesses including some cancers.

The manmade chemicals have been in use since the 1940s in a range of consumer products including nonstick cookware and flame-resistant fabrics. Many were phased out because of health concerns in the mid-2000s but others are still in common uses such as food packaging. They are known as “forever chemicals” because they accumulate in the body and don’t break down in the environment.

Some advocates for tougher curbs on PFAS say there’s a compelling case for determining whether they limit the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.

“Since the vaccine works by stimulating the body’s antibody response through a person’s immune system, the concern is that a person with a higher concentration of PFAS in the blood may not be as protected by the vaccine and may even be less equipped to fight COVID,” said Tracy Carluccio, a veteran campaigner for the regulation of PFAS, and deputy director of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

While research has shown PFAS to produce decreased immune response for other vaccines, little is known about how the chemicals affect COVID-19 vaccines, and that justifies more study, said Tasha Stoiber, senior scientist at Environmental Working Group, a national nonprofit that advocates for national PFAS regulation.

“The impact of PFAS on the immune system is not new, as shown by many studies in animals and humans. But any associations of PFAS in the body and COVID-19 illness outcomes are new, since the virus is new,” she said.

Pallone ‘deeply concerned’

The CDC said in November it is looking at any links between PFAS and COVID-19. In a letter to U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat who has been active in efforts to curb PFAS, CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield said the CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry are “assessing the intersection” between PFAS exposure and COVID-19.

Earlier this year, the agencies said there is evidence that PFAS exposure may reduce both antibody responses to vaccines, and resistance to infectious diseases.

“Because COVID-19 is a new public health concern, there is still much we don’t know,” the agencies said in a statement. “More research is needed to understand how PFAS exposure may affect illness from COVID-19.”

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he remains “deeply concerned” about any links between PFAS and COVID-19, especially for environmental justice communities that have been disproportionately impacted by toxic pollution.

In early 2020, Pallone co-sponsored the PFAS Action Act, a bill passed by the House that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to designate two common PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances, facilitating their cleanup.