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A new Danish study has found that elevated levels of Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of man-made chemicals linked to cancer, in the bloodstream are linked to severe COVID-19. The study observed 323 patients infected with the virus and found that those with elevated levels of the PFBA chemical were more than twice as likely to suffer from a severe case of the disease. PFAS and PFBA are extremely common around the world, commonly used in electronics, clothing, medical equipment, and more.
Why This Matters: PFBA is a class of chemical compounds that are used across many industries around the world. Their ubiquity doesn’t end in industry and it has come to be found often in soil, food, and drinking water; these chemicals have been nicknamed “forever chemicals.” According to EarthJustice, in the U.S. alone, PFAS have contaminated the tap water of 16 million people in 33 states and Puerto Rico, and groundwater in 38 states.
Although PFBA is processed out of the bloodstream in a matter of days, PFAB and its predecessor PFOA have been linked to the lowered vaccine effectiveness. Experts believe that its presence could require a change of plans when it comes to inoculation. Philippe Grandjean, the principal author of the study, said that people with elevated levels of PFBA “may need more than the 1 or 2 shots recommended for everyone else because their antibody production may be suppressed.”
Additionally, people of color and poor communities are more likely to have elevated PFAS levels, and some of the least likely to have reliable access to healthcare.
A study from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 39,000 more low-income households and approximately 295,000 more people of color live within five miles of a site contaminated with PFAS than their counterparts.
PFAS and You: Studies have shown that PFBA accumulates in the lungs, a phenomenon that Grandjean believes contributes to the increased severity in COVID-19 cases. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, PFBA has been linked to changes in the liver and thyroid, as well as decreased red blood cells, decreased cholesterol, and more. Despite this, the CDC does not track PFBA in its surveillance of PFAS levels in the bloodstream.
Experts are frustrated with how widespread PFAS has become with so little oversight. Alissa Cordner, a sociologist at Whitman College, says “There’s so much uncertainty around what the scale and the consequences of contamination are.”
One of the biggest obstacles to resolving this uncertainty is that PFAS encompasses a wide range of chemicals that have different functions and uses, and experts haven’t yet done enough research to understand if and how each one is harmful. “We still don’t know the precise molecular ways that they produce toxicity…Honestly, I think we’re still at the very beginning,” explainsJamie DeWitt, a toxicologist who studies PFAS at East Carolina University.
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