Study links PFAS contaminants to severe COVID

Posted 12/16/20

A new study suggests that Newburgh’s history of water contaminants could place its residents at a higher coronavirus risk.

It’s been discussed that more severe effects of COVID-19 …

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Study links PFAS contaminants to severe COVID


A new study suggests that Newburgh’s history of water contaminants could place its residents at a higher coronavirus risk.

It’s been discussed that more severe effects of COVID-19 could potentially be determined by other factors such as air pollution, but a recent Danish study has now revealed that elevated exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as forever chemicals, can lead to more severe cases of COVID-19. The City of Newburgh has been dealing with long term effects from its PFAS-contaminated water for decades, since the discovery in 2016 that its Washington Lake water source was contaminated by PFAS chemicals from fire fighting foam used at Stewart Airport. The recent study might be an additional factor as to why some Newburgh residents are experiencing COVID-19 in the way that they are.

The research involved 323 patients who were infected with coronavirus, aged 30 to 70 years old, and found that those with elevated levels of perfluorobutyrate (PFBA) were twice as likely to have a severe case of COVID-19. Less than 20 percent of those with a mild COVID-19 case had elevated levels of PFBA. While it has not yet been peer-reviewed, the results are interesting enough.

PFBA is usually thought to be less of a concern, as it is “one of the short-chain PFASs that … remains in the blood only for a short time – which is in contrast to the traditional PFASs,” explained Philippe Grandjean, an adjunct professor at Harvard School of Public Health who conducted the study and is also familiar with Newburgh’s PFAS situation.

“I had thought that the traditional PFASs, like perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), would show a connection with more severe COVID-19, as PFOA is well known to inhibit some immune functions,” said Grandjean. “Surprisingly, we saw the association for PFBA that is usually thought to be of less concern.”

The most meaningful finding in this study is that short-term PFBA primarily accumulates in the lungs, something that none of the other PFASs do.

“Having immunotoxic PFBA accumulate in the lungs could well trigger a more severe COVID-19 disease,” said Grandjean.

He explained how PFBA is a common contaminant in drinking water, but with most regulatory limits being “very high,” it is hard to prevent exposures like the one seen in the Danish study.

Looking at other variables in the study, including sex, age and background, plasma-PFAS concentrations were higher in males, in subjects with Western European background, and tended to increase with age. However, neither of these were associated with the presence of chronic disease. PFBA showed an odds ratio, a measure of association between an exposure and an outcome, of 2.19. After considering the other variables mentioned, in addition to sampling site and interval between blood sampling and diagnosis, the odds ratio was decreased to 1.77. Of the 323 participants, 33 percent had not been hospitalized, and of those hospitalized, 16 percent were in intensive care or deceased.

The study also stated that, “given the low background exposure levels in this study, the role of PFAS exposure in COVID-19 needs to be ascertained in populations with elevated exposures.” The median level in the 20 to 70-year-olds was 4.9 ug/L, slightly below the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey median. The Newburgh Clean Water Project reported that, “of adults (18+) who drank City water and were in the 50th percentile, PFOS levels were found to be 20.1 mcg/L – nearly four times the national average of 5.2. Children (below 18) in the same sector were found to have PFOS levels of 8.3 mcg/L.”

The connection between PFAS exposure and COVID-19 doesn’t stop there.

Dr. Jamie DeWitt is a researcher who has focused on the effects PFAS has on the immune system, more particularly, the part of the immune system that is “really important for agents like COVID, because it recognizes new invaders that your body has never seen before,” called the adaptive immune system.

In her lab, they have proven this with mice, which replicates what it would be like to receive a vaccine when you have levels of PFAS.

“We give them an injection, that is like a vaccine, and look at how well their body makes antibodies against that vaccine,” said DeWitt. “We compare them to mice that haven’t been exposed to PFAS.”

In short, DeWitt said that the PFAS-infected mice don’t do a good job of making antibodies to the vaccine-like injection. Grandjean has also been looking at the same response in people since 2012, which shows the same thing that DeWitt found in mice. The higher the amount of PFAS in their blood, the worse they are at making antibodies, meaning they are at “increased risk of not being protected.”

This experiment in mice relates to what is now happening to people living in PFAS-contaminated areas while trying to battle COVID-19.

“COVID is something our body hasn’t seen before,” said DeWitt. “Just like when you get a vaccine, your body has to make antibodies against COVID. The antibodies help your immune system respond more strongly the next time you see COVID.”

“If PFAS inhibits our bodies ability to make really good antibodies against novel vaccines, then that says our bodies might not be able to do a very good job of making antibodies against things like COVID,” continued DeWitt. “That’s why we’re concerned because what our bodies need to do for a vaccine and what it needs to do when it sees COVID is very similar.”

At the federal level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published a statement that recognizes that “exposure to high levels of PFAS may impact the immune system.” They cited the Danish study, which also shows the evidence that PFAS exposure may reduce antibody responses to vaccines. They did state that at this time, more research is needed to understand how PFAS exposure may affect illness from COVID-19.

DeWitt can safely say that there is an increased risk that the COVID-19 vaccine might not work as well for those who have shown levels of PFAS contamination.

“We can’t predict who is going to respond well and who’s not,” said DeWitt. “But from what we understand of PFAS and its ability to impact vaccines, there is a risk that some individuals might not respond well to the vaccine and make the protected antibodies that we need to make.”

Other risk factors like age and overall health would most likely have an impact on this as well, but it is something to consider. All in all, she recommends everyone to get vaccinated when it is available.

“It’s terrible that we have people living in communities that in addition to the stress of the pandemic itself, they have to be stressed and fearful that they might not be appropriately protected with the vaccine,” said DeWitt. “However, it also gives us additional evidence that PFAS should not be in our bodies or the environment.”

So what can residents do about it? Grandjean suggested rallying behind all efforts that are aimed at decreasing PFAS exposures, including PFBA that is often not looked at with as much concern. The CDC doesn’t include PFBA in its surveillance of the blood levels of PFAS compounds.

On a local level, there isn’t that much that has been revealed yet about this connection between PFBA and severe COVID-19 cases.

“The full extent of PFAS impact on health is continuously being examined and there is more research that is pending,” said Dr. Irina Gelman, Orange County Health Commissioner. “In addition, the long-term impact of COVID-19 as a novel, newly emerging virus continues to be investigated.”

However, we touched base with the Newburgh Clean Water Project, a local resident’s action group that works to protect access to clean water in the area.

“It doesn’t seem surprising that residents with lowered immunity due to long-term PFAS exposure would be at higher risk for COVID-19,” said Tamsin Hollo, a member of the Newburgh Clean Water Project. “In addition, the mechanism of this specific chemical, PFBA, which gathers in the lungs, just proves the point that this entire class of chemicals must be banned together – whether 8-chain, 6-chain or this 4-chain molecular structure. For too long we’ve been fighting each of these chemicals one by one. This entire group of chemicals needs to be banned as a class for human safety.”

They hope to focus on banning these chemicals as an entire class and push corporations to not make products with these chemicals.

Currently, the Newburgh Clean Water Project has reached out to the New York State Department of Health to see if PFBAs were tested for in the bloodstream when Newburgh had its city-wide round of tests in 2018. However, because the CDC doesn’t include PFBAs in their test, it is unlikely that Newburgh residents were tested for it.

“As a community action group, all we can do is urge the New York State Department of Health and Governor Andrew Cuomo to look into this and give us greater resources here because of the long-term effects of toxicity from the entire PFAS class,” said Hollo.

The Newburgh Clean Water Project is also continuing to call on the Department of Defense and the Air National Guard to clean up the PFAS that has still not been remediated since the 2016 discovery. They plan to keep a “close eye” on the secondary water source, Brown’s Pond, which the City of Newburgh is currently getting their water from, to see if the number goes up for PFBAs.

Assembly member Jonathan Jacobson cosponsored a bill (A4739), along with several other assembly members, that would ban PFAS chemicals in food packaging, which was signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo on December 2. However, it is important to note that PFAS are also found in a number of other products, like stain-resistant carpets and furniture and outdoor gear, just to name a couple.

“For decades, PFAS chemicals were used for a range of products, including non-stick cookware and a variety of food and drink packaging,” said Jacobson. “Today, we have a greater understanding of the health hazards these chemicals pose to humans, including increased risk of cancer.”

Last year, New York State banned PFAS chemicals from fire-fighting foam.

“This law eliminates one more possibility of PFAS chemicals endangering our health,” said Jacobson.