COVID-19 vaccine could be less effective in people with high PFAS levels in blood

Jamie DeWitt, toxicologist and associate professor at East Carolina University, has conducted extensive research on PFAS exposure and human health. (Photo: ECU)

The COVID-19 vaccine could be less effective in people with high levels of perfluorinated compounds — PFAS — in their blood, several scientists announced today.

High levels of PFAS exposure is known to be linked to a “plethora of adverse health effects,” including immune system disorders, said Linda Birnbaum, a toxicologist and former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Science.

That means people with high levels of PFAS in their blood could have a weaker response to the COVID-19 vaccine, and build up fewer antibodies to the vaccine.

“It’s not that you won’t get any response, but that it could be decreased,” Birnbaum said.

The scientists on the press call, hosted by the Environmental Working Group, emphasized people should still get the vaccine, currently given in two doses. After those doses, people can be tested to determine their level of antibodies; if those levels are low, a third booster could be necessary, Birnbaum said.

There are more than 5,000 types of PFAS, all of them produced by industry. Known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, the compounds are found worldwide in drinking water, surface water and in human blood. The sources are myriad: fast food wrappers, personal care products, cosmetics, carpet, water-resistant fabrics, firefighting foam and more.

In addition to immune disorders, PFAS has been linked to higher rates of thyroid disease, cancer, obesity, Type II diabetes, as well as harm to the developing brain and reproductive disorders.

Research so far has determined that people with PFAS blood levels above 22.5 parts per billion could have more health problems related to the compounds than people with less exposure, including a depressed immune response.

“It doesn’t mean that they will all get sick, but that they have a higher risk,” said Jamie DeWitt, a toxicologist and associate professor at East Carolina University who has done extensive research on the compounds and human health.

The median blood level in the U.S. population is 5 parts per billion. However, some residents in particularly polluted areas, such as Wilmington and Pittsboro, have blood levels above the national median.

A study of 49 Wilmington residents by Heather Stapleton’s lab at Duke University found a maximum of 30 parts per billion of PFOS and 40 parts per billion of PFOA, which would put those people at higher risk. The median level in Wilmington was 10 parts per billion. Blood levels of sampled Pittsboro residents showed similar concentrations to their Wilmington counterparts.

A study of Danish people with COVID-19 showed that those with higher levels of a type of perfluorinated compound, PFBA, in their blood suffered more severe reactions from the virus, as well as a higher death rate.

“This is a real risk,” DeWitt said. “We want people to get vaccinated, to give their immune system an additional tool to fight.”

Under the Trump administration, EPA leadership has delayed any meaningful regulations of these compounds. The Biden administration has included PFAS in its environmental justice plan, said Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney with the Environmental Working Group.

This includes regulating PFAS under Superfund law, which would label the compounds as hazardous substances. This would require industry to report the release of the chemicals and allow the EPA to sue violators and hold them financially responsible for clean ups.

The Biden administration also has said it would set a legally enforceable standard for PFAS in drinking water. Currently, the EPA has only set a health advisory recommendation of 70 parts per trillion in drinking water, a level that several states, such as New Hampshire (but not North Carolina) are rejecting as being too lax.

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