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Will my exposure to 'forever chemicals' make the Covid-19 vaccine less effective?

Mark Favors
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

So far about 4.6 million Americans have received a dose of Covid-19 vaccine. I am one of them. As a military veteran and nurse, I am watching the government navigate the logistical challenge of getting the new vaccine out to the people most at risk: frontline workers, the elderly, and people with underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus.

But there is another large group of people who should also be worried about whether the vaccine will protect them: the millions of people who have been exposed to toxic PFAS chemicals. PFAS are a group of synthetic, fluorine-based chemicals used to make nonstick pans, raincoats, and many other common household items. They are highly toxic to human health, and contaminate drinking water for millions of people who live near military bases and industrial sites. PFAS have been linked to health problems including immune system suppression, organ damage and cancer, and a real-life case of contamination inspired the 2019 Mark Ruffalo film Dark Waters. There is also a growing and worrying body of evidence that people with high levels of exposure to PFAS are less protected by vaccines.

That’s deeply worrying, because people with exposure to PFAS are among those who need a working vaccine most, as the immune-depressing power of PFAS may also worsen the effects of the virus. Back home in Colorado Springs, many military families – including my own – have been drinking PFAS-contaminated water for decades. Sixteen of my relatives have been diagnosed with cancer. Many others in my family have suffered from severe cases of Covid, and considering the lingering effects of PFAS in their bodies, I can’t help but wonder if there is a connection.

As a frontline healthcare worker, I’ve treated Covid patients in New York City since March. I’ve remained healthy but am counting on the vaccine to offer an additional layer of protection to the masks, scrubbing, and intense safety protocols that have kept me alive.

But because PFAS has been shown to diminish the immune system, there are clear concerns about the effectiveness of the Covid vaccine on PFAS-exposed communities like mine.

Several long-term studies have found that exposure to PFAS can make vaccines less effective. By depressing the immune system, PFAS inhibit the development of a strong antibody response. In some cases, the antibody levels of children highly exposed to PFAS fall so low that they aren’t considered immune to diseases any longer. There are studies of lower antibody levels to routine childhood vaccinations and the seasonal flu shot in both American adolescents and adults.

While there haven’t been any large-scale studies on the effectiveness of the Covid vaccine on PFAS-exposed patients, understanding the effects of PFAS on Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines is crucial to determining how well the vaccine protects a vulnerable sub-group. The CDC is just now beginning to research this connection.

The government needs to monitor and fund this research so we can find out how toxic PFAS exposure is interacting with not only the Covid vaccine but other toxic chemicals as well. Philippe Grandjean, of Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health, has even suggested that people with high levels of PFAS in their bodies might need extra doses of the vaccine to be protected.

Just like Covid infection rates, rates of PFAS exposure are not random. Communities of color and low-income communities are more likely to live near a site contaminated with PFAS. Exposure to PFAS compounds the inequality that the Covid crisis has already laid bare.

I’m remaining cautiously hopeful that my community’s legacy of being poisoned by PFAS for decades does not limit the effectiveness of the vaccine. But at this point, 2020 has revealed another harsh reality: that poorly studied industrial chemicals pose complex, lasting, and incredibly expensive threats to our health. And that the costs of cleaning up contamination far exceed the perceived benefits of things like nonstick pans and rain gear.

Most importantly, the stress caused by pollution compounds the impacts of racial inequality in Black and Brown communities like mine. Poverty, inadequate health care, and chronic diseases also intersect with pollution to make a deadly triple whammy when a new threat like Covid strikes.

  • Mark Favors is a military veteran and nurse in New York City. He advocates for clean water and better protections for military families and communities impacted by PFAS contamination