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Experts: Prioritize COVID-19 vaccine for those with high exposure to PFAS chemicals

Experts: Prioritize COVID-19 vaccine for those with high exposure to PFAS chemicals
Experts say that people who have high exposure to PFAS chemicals -- found in food packaging and cleaning products, among other sources -- should be prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine. File Photo by Gary I Rothstein /UPI | License Photo

Dec. 17 (UPI) -- People with higher levels of toxic, manmade chemicals in their bloodstream should be given priority for a COVID-19 vaccine, scientists who represent the Environmental Working Group said Thursday.

This is because these toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, or PFAS, which are found in many household cleaning products, pesticides and food packaging, appear to adversely affect the human immune system's ability to fight infectious diseases, the scientists said.

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The chemicals also may limit the production of virus-fighting antibodies by the immune system after vaccination, potentially reducing the shot's effectiveness, according to the scientists.

"These chemicals ... are everywhere, all over the world," Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program, said during a call with reporters Thursday.

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"Essentially everyone in America has measurable PFAS in their body, and [these chemicals] can cause a plethora of adverse health effects, including in the immune system," Birnbaum said.

Testing performed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that "widespread exposure" exists to PFAS chemicals nationally.

The chemicals are present in the air, as well as in the drinking-water supply, in many parts of the country, the agency said.

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In addition, people in the military, firefighters and those working in industrial settings may be at higher risk for PFAS exposure, due to materials and chemicals used in these fields, according to Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group.

Levels of PFAS in the blood "accumulate over time," placing the elderly, who already are at high risk for COVID-19, at increased risk for exposure, she said.

A study published in October by the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry found that PFAS exposure negatively impacts antibody response to vaccines and reduces the immune system's ability to fight infections.

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A separate analysis, which has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal, found that increased exposure to PFAS doubled a person's risk for severe disease following COVID-19 infection.

Based on these findings, the Environmental Working Group is urging federal officials to give COVID-19 vaccine priority to these individuals, and to bolster efforts to "end non-essential uses" of PFAS in consumer products and restrict industrial use, Stoiber said Thursday.

Several states, including most recently New York and New Jersey, have taken steps to prohibit the use of PFAS in food packaging, for example, she said.

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In addition, the public can reduce their risk for PFAS exposure by limiting their use of products that contain the chemicals, using filters for drinking water and avoiding the consumption of takeout food packaged in PFAS-laden containers, according to Stoiber.

"We know from studies that the immune system is especially vulnerable to PFAS exposures, so PFAS in your body may not only affect your risk for COVID-19, but also your response to a vaccine," she said.

Still, the Environmental Working Group is "urging everyone" to get vaccinated against COVID-19, as the shot can "give your immune system another weapon" against the virus," she said.

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