Two big news stories that you have no doubt been following lately are the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine and the presidential transition. However, what is a little less widely known is that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), the so-called “forever chemicals” that have become a concern for environmental regulators as well as environment, health, and safety (EHS) professionals, have managed to insert themselves into both topics.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) February 2019 PFAS Action Plan, over 4,000 PFAS may have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the world since they were first synthesized in the 1940s. The EPA’s Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Chemical Substance Inventory lists about 1,200 PFAS, approximately half of which are known to be commercially active within the last decade. Commonly used in applications from nonstick cookware to fire suppressants, PFAS have earned the nickname “forever chemicals” because of their resistance to degradation. This quality has made them useful in certain products, but also ensures that when PFAS enter the human body, they stay there (and can accumulate) for a long time—by some estimates, up to 8 years.
While PFAS have not been the centerpiece of the discussions surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine or the presidential transition, they have made an appearance. Let’s take a look at what’s being said.
Could PFAS Affect the Efficacy of COVID-19 Vaccine in Some?
Last month, The Guardian published a story that laid out the concerns of researchers that PFAS may reduce the COVID-19 vaccine’s effectiveness in those with high exposures to the chemicals. The scientists note that PFAS exposure has led to reduced antibody concentrations for other vaccines for tetanus and diphtheria, and it remains to be seen if the same trend will be seen in COVID-19 immunizations.
Philippe Grandjean, an adjunct professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that “At this stage we don’t know if it will impact a corona vaccination, but it’s a risk … We would have to cross our fingers and hope for the best.”
The article also notes that research (yet to be peer-reviewed) suggests a certain type of PFAS, perfluorobutyrate (PFBA), accumulates in the lungs and can cause more severe illness in those infected by COVID-19.
With the chemicals causing so much potential trouble, it should be unsurprising that President-Elect Joe Biden has pledged for stronger regulation of PFAS, and a Biden EPA likely will follow through, especially as it relates to drinking water.
Erin Brockovich Calls Out DuPont Consultant on EPA Transition Team
Speaking of the presidential transition, a prominent activist is questioning the inclusion of a DuPont consultant on Biden’s EPA transition team—and specifically pointed to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a type of PFAS. In an op-ed, Erin Brockovich expressed frustration at the inclusion of Michael McCabe on the team, citing McCabe’s work as a communication strategist for DuPont during a time when the chemical giant was fighting possible regulation of PFOA.
Brockovich writes that “… DuPont suspected that their product was harmful since the 1960s—experiments they conducted in 1961 showed that PFOS [another type of PFAS] affected the livers of dogs and rabbits. McCabe’s work inevitably contributed to staving off costly clean-up and additional regulation headaches for the company.”
Clearly, the staying power of PFAS (both literally and figuratively) will make it a topic—and potentially a work-related hazard—of concern for EHS professionals in the coming years.