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Water Today Title April 14, 2024
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Update 2022/9/8

Studies indicate PFAS exposure may impair resistance to Coronavirus

By Suzanne Forcese

WT Interview with Dr. Philippe Grandjean.

“The course of coronavirus disease 2019 seems to be aggravated by air pollution, and some industrial chemicals, such as the perfluorinated alkylate substances (PFASs), are immunotoxic and may contribute to an association with disease severity.”--Dr. Philippe Grandjean et al in the Abstract from Severity of COVID-19 at elevated exposure to perfluorinated alkylates

A study published in 2020, led by Dr. Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor of Environmental Health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, demonstrated that people who had elevated blood levels of a toxic chemical called perfluoro butanoic acid (PFBA) had an increased risk of a more severe course of the coronavirus illness than those who did not have elevated levels.

PFASs have water-and grease-resistant properties and are used in a wide variety of products, including nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing, food packaging, and firefighting foams.

PFBAs are substances that are used to make (among other things) packaging and rain-water repellent gear.

PFBA, more than other PFASs is known to accumulate in the lungs according to the study.

WATERTODAY reached out to Professor Grandjean to learn more.

WT: What health problems have PFASs been linked to?

Grandjean: In the beginning, we were mainly concerned about increased serum cholesterol and birth defects. With time, we have discovered many more likely outcomes, so the PFASs should now be thought of as multi-organ toxicants.

WT: You have published several studies suggesting that the widely used “forever chemicals” (PFASs) interfere with immune system function. Please tell us about your findings regarding children and prenatal exposure to PFAS.

Grandjean: In 2012, we published our first study of children’s antibody responses to routine vaccinations.

The more PFAS they had in their blood, the less antibody response they showed from the vaccines, and some of the children had such low levels that the vaccinations seemed not to work at all. 

Since then, this information has been extended from studies in several countries, including the U.S., and we now know that more highly exposed children also suffer from more frequent infections and hospitalizations from pneumonia for example.

WT: How might PFAS impair the immune system?

Grandjean: Toxicologists have shown in animal models and in cell cultures that PFASs can impair biochemical mechanisms that are crucial for the white blood cells to protect us against infections.

WT: Your research, carried out at the end of 2020 at the University of Southern Denmark, looked at 323 Danish individuals infected with the coronavirus. What were your findings?

Grandjean: We obtained blood samples from people who had tested positive for the coronavirus. We then linked to their health records at the Ministry of Health database and found that one of the PFASs was more clearly related to more serious infections – longer hospitalization, intensive care, ventilator need, and even death.

This is the short-chain PFAS called PFBA that is known to accumulate in the lungs, which other PFAS don’t.

The unique retention of PFBA in lung tissue may offer a clue as to why PFBA seems to cause more serious diseases.

WT: Since this study was published, other research has come to light. One for example, in the Swedish town of Ronneby. For decades one third of the town was exposed to highly PFASs contaminated drinking water. The study reported that the infection rate from the pandemic’s first year was about 19% higher than in a nearby town with water that did not have PFAS levels.

Grandjean: Yes, many other studies do concur with our findings. They are in agreement with the general conclusion that PFAS exposure can weaken the immune system.

WT: Have you done further research on this topic since your 2020 paper?

Grandjean: It has been difficult to conduct follow-ups, as new treatments and vaccines have been introduced. We are now studying the efficacy of corona vaccinations in adults with different levels of PFAS exposure.

WT: It would seem that real public health dangers need to be addressed. What are your recommendations? Do you see governments stepping in?

Grandjean: There is a move within the EU to aim at banning or at least restricting the use of PFASs. One step in the right direction was the phase-out of PFAS-treated materials for food-packaging materials (flour bags, popcorn bags etc.).

Although it may be claimed that some uses are essential, it will be important to identify non-PFAS substitutes. Then we need to stop the use – for example in cosmetics, dental floss, ski waxes, and similar uses that can cause direct exposure to the consumer.

In addition, we need to phase out those uses that are most likely to pollute the environment, including groundwater.

Fire-fighting foam is probably already PFAS-free, but there may be ‘old’ products still in existence.

PFASs contain carbon-fluorine bonds, which are among the strongest bonds, making them persistent.

These compounds, which are a major contaminant in drinking water and groundwater worldwide, are linked also to other health issues such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.

Dr. Philippe Grandjean, MD Ph.D., conducts international research to assess adverse health effects that are linked to exposures to environmental chemicals.

Dr. Grandjean also serves as Professor of Environmental Medicine at the University of Southern Denmark. He is the founding Editor-in-Chief of the open–access journal, Environmental Health.

His book, Only One chance – And How To Protect The Brains of the Next Generation, was published in 2013 by Oxford University Press.


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