Study finds ‘forever chemicals’ can lead to severe COVID-19 cases

More research needed into link between PFAS and COVID, local doctor says.

People with elevated levels of “forever chemicals,” a group of harmful contaminants that have been found in some area drinking water systems, are more likely to be admitted to the intensive care unit or die if they become infected with COVID-19, a recent Harvard University study found.

Certain elements among the contaminants, collectively known as PFAS, tend to attack the lungs, similar to the coronavirus.

The findings suggest that more studies are needed to determine if elevated exposure to such contaminants may worsen coronavirus outcomes, according to Harvard. Dr. Steven Burdette, medical director of infection control at Miami Valley Hospital, agrees. He called the study results an “interesting hypothesis,” but not a proven cause for more severe cases of the coronavirus.

“As we have learned in the world of COVID, it takes more than one small study, because there could be something in this population of Denmark (where the study was done) that is not being monitored or detected as to why some of these folks had more severe disease,” said, Burdette, who is also a professor of internal medicine and director of the Infectious Disease Fellowship Program at Wright State University.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances ― or PFAS ― are a group of manmade chemicals that can affect pregnancy, the kidneys and liver, increase cholesterol levels, decrease vaccine response in children and cause some forms of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dubbed forever chemicals for their longevity, the contaminants were once widely used in manufacturing, carpeting, upholstery, food packaging, and other commercial and military uses.

In the the Harvard study, researchers used plasma samples from 323 Danish people between the ages of 30 and 70 who were infected with the coronavirus and had levels of PFAS in their blood. The data also included other health information and demographic variables.

PFAS concentrations were higher in men, subjects with Western European background and increase with age, but were not associated with the presence of chronic disease, according to researchers. One hundred eight ― 33% ― of the participants had not been hospitalized. Of those who’d spent time in the hospital, 16% had been in the ICU or died.

Among five PFAS compounds that researchers analyzed in the participants’ blood, those with elevated levels of perfluorobutyrate, or PFBA, were more than two times likely to have increase severity of coronavirus. Among the study participants who were hospitalized, they were five times more likely to be admitted to the ICU or die, based on blood samples obtained at the time the patients were diagnosed up to one week prior, researchers found.

PFAS in general weakens the immune system’s response to infection. However, PFBA in particular builds up in the lungs, which is an organ that COVID-19 infects. So that’s why elevated levels of PFAS may lead to more severe cases of the coronavirus, Burdette said.

In a recent statewide study, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency detected levels of PFAS in 24 Southwest Ohio public drinking water systems. That includes Aullwood Audubon Farm Discovery Center’s water system in Dayton, whose PFAS level is 94 parts per trillion. The EPA’s action level is 70 ppt.

The pandemic, the presence of PFAS in the region and the Harvard study should not cause residents to make major lifestyle changes, although they need to remain diligent and continue to educate themselves, Burdette said, reiterating the fact that more research is needed.

“This study has gotten a lot of interest, and when that happens, the small studies lead to better studies,” he said. “So, I’m sure throughout the world there are probably more groups now that are on a bigger scale looking at this, and will hopefully get us more definitive data.”

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