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

Michele Catinella, a Nurse Practitioner at the John Knox Village Continuing Care Retirement Community receives a Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine from Carmen Pi, a Registered Nurse with American Medical Response on December 16, 2020 in Pompano Beach, Florida. |Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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

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 last month, hosted by the Washington, D.C.-based 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.

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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. Some residents in particularly polluted areas have blood levels above the national median.

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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, Environmental Protection Agency (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, including Michigan, which has its own strict standard, are rejecting as being too lax.

A version of this story first ran in the Advance’s sister outlet, North Carolina Policy Watch.

Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg joined N.C. Policy Watch in July 2016. She covers environmental issues, including social justice, pollution, climate change and energy policy. Before joining the project, Lisa was the editor and an investigative reporter for INDY Week, covering the environment, housing and city government. She has been a journalist for 22 years, working at magazines, daily newspapers, digital media outlets and alternative newsweeklies.