A group of chemicals called PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), colloquially known as “forever chemicals” because of their lengthy degradation time, are nearly inescapable. Commonly used to repel water and reduce the friction on surfaces, they’re found in raingear, lotion, non-stick pans, dental floss, food packaging, surgical gowns, electronics, and the foam used to fight fires.
Now, a new study shows that people with elevated levels of PFAS in their blood—most often a result of exposure to contaminated drinking water or food—could have more severe cases of COVID-19. Of the 323 COVID-19 patients screened in the study, more than half of those seriously ill with the disease had elevated levels of a particular type of PFAS—known as PFBA—in their blood.
“These chemicals interfere with the immune system,” says Phil Brown, a university distinguished professor of sociology and health sciences at Northeastern who studies the effects of PFAS on people’s health. “PFAS have been shown to suppress B cells, which are very important for producing antibodies.” On top of that, effects of PFAS on the immune system have also been associated with an overactive immune system. “Cytokine storm” is one effect of COVID-19 seen in more severe cases.