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Stories and information in our region on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Advocates to CDC: Study Link Between PFAS and Covid-19 Severity

Historic Grummand Corp Sign
Frank Eltman
The ex-Grumman Corp. plant in Bethpage, N.Y. is the epicenter of a toxic PFAS plume spreading through the groundwater.

Advocates at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) want more studies that explore how PFAS exposure may affect COVID-19 severity and vaccine efficacy. Toxicoligists say they are concerned about communities with high traces of so-called forever chemicals in drinking water, because residents may get sicker with Coronavirus and may respond less to the COVID-19 vaccine.PFAS are chemicals used in everything from take-out containers to firefighting foam. High levels of the chemicals have been found in drinking water on Long Island.

Dr. Jaime Dewitt, who researches PFAS at East Carolina University, said an early study of COVID-19 patients in Denmark could be a model for further PFAS research in the U.S.

“What they found is that in people who had higher levels of PFBA in their blood, they had more severe reactions to Covid," Dewitt said. "They stayed in the hospital longer, they ended up in the ICU and unfortunately, for some, they passed away more often.”

DeWitt spoke on a call with several toxicologists and members of the non-partisan nonprofit, EWG.

Dr. Linda Birnbaum, a toxicologist and former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, said studies have shown PFAS blood levels of 22.5 nanograms per milliliter can weaken the immune system. 

"We know that suppression of the immune system can be associated with a decreased ability to mount a therapeutic response to vaccination," Birnbaum said. "That doesn’t mean you won’t get any response to vaccination, you may just not get as much.”

Birnbaum said the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should also study how high PFAS exposure may increase a risk of a reduced response to the COVID-19 vaccine. She suggested future studies could show whether people with high PFAS exposure may need another booster shot of the vaccine.

Until vaccines are widely available, both experts warned residents of areas with known PFAS contamination should be especially diligent about wearing masks and social distancing.