Environmentalists Question How Harmful Chemicals Could Affect COVID-19 Vaccination

Dec 21, 2020

Advocates at the Environmental Working Group want more studies of how exposure to so-called “forever chemicals” may affect COVID-19 severity and vaccine efficacy. They’re concerned about communities with high levels of PFAS, like Long Island.

PFAS are chemicals used in everything from take-out containers to firefighting foam.

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

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

Birnbaum said studies should explore whether people with high PFAS exposure may need another booster shot of the coronavirus vaccine.

She said residents of areas with known PFAS contamination should be diligent about wearing masks and social distancing.

Dr. Jaime Dewitt researches PFAS at East Carolina University. She 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 said researchers should also study how high PFAS exposure may also increase a risk of a reduced response to the COVID-19 vaccine.