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Health, Science and Environment

Researchers warn PFAs exposure could reduce the effectiveness of a COVID vaccine

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Dr. Linda Birnbaum

Researchers and health experts warn that exposure to PFAS chemicals may leave people more vulnerable to COVID-19.

It may also make a vaccine less effective.

PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl substances, have been linked to health problems including cancer, and are found across the state.

On the press call put on by the Environmental Working Group this Thursday, researchers noted that some PFAs have been found to reduce immune response.

Dr. Jamie DeWitt is with the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University and studies PFAs. She said research is still in the early stages - but enough is known for people with PFAS exposure to take extra precautions.

“If you’re at increased risk because you know you have PFAS in your body or your drinking water take extra precautions and really don’t go outside without a mask until you can get vaccinated,” she said. “Or until you know other people are less likely to infect you with COVID or other pathogens.”

DeWitt said one early study out of Denmark showed a link between concentrations of one PFAs, PFBA, and death.

“Increased levels of PFBA in people’s blood was associated with an increased risk of dying from COVID, an increased risk of going into the ICU, and an increased risk of having a hospital stay compared with people with lower concentrations of PFBA in their blood,” she said.

Dr. Linda Birnbaum is the retired director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences. She said although the vaccine may not be as effective for those with high PFAs exposure, that doesn’t mean people exposed won’t benefit from the vaccine - and should still get vaccinated.

“There may be opportunities if you’re living in an area for example and you know you have high PFAS there may be opportunities that instead of getting that one booster that’s now required with the two MRNA vaccines maybe you would need the third booster,” she said.

Birnbaum said it’s also possible for people to get an antibody test to help measure their immune system’s response to the vaccine.

Both doctors reiterated that the links to COVID susceptibility and PFAs exposure are still early, but taking precautions is still worthwhile for those with high exposure to PFAs.

“We know they do suppress the immune system, as well as stimulate it in certain cases,” Dr. Birnbaum said. “We know if you have high levels you’re more likely to have that suppression happening, and we know that suppression of the immune system is associated with a decreased ability to mount a response to vaccination.”

The state health department did not immediately respond to our request for comment on whether there would be any state guidance for those with high levels of PFAs exposure.