Toxic “forever chemicals” found in the drinking water on many military bases are known to cause immune system issues and, according to the Environmental Working Group, could be a concern for service members and their dependents when it comes to both the risks of contracting the novel coronavirus and getting the vaccine to prevent it.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are found in everything from upholstery and cookware to food containers, but for troops, they’re a key component in the aqueous film-forming foam used to fight fires, and which for decades was used regularly as part of firefighting training. While it’s possible to reduce exposure to them, the substances are known to build up in the body over time and stay there.
“Some people who are exposed to PFAS will end up having suppressed immune systems,” Jamie DeWitt, an associated professor of pharmacology and toxicology and East Carolina University, told reporters on Thursday. “Some people who are exposed to PFAS will end up having immune systems that go overboard.”
Exposure to those chemicals, either through run-off in drinking water or through direct contact, has been linked to myriad health problems, from cancer to diabetes to thyroid disruption and more.
Multiple studies have found evidence that they also affect the immune system, either by suppressing it or making it hypersensitive ― as is the case with asthma and food allergies, also PFAS-linked conditions.
“Does it mean they will all get sick? No, but it does mean they have a higher risk of getting sick,” DeWitt said, particularly with the novel coronavirus, as many PFAS-linked conditions are also indicators for COVID-19 complications ― including diabetes, asthma and heart disease.
Nearly every American has been exposed to PFAS in some form, according to Tasha Stoiber, an EWG senior scientist, but some groups are at higher risk.
“Military personnel, firefighters and people in communities where contaminated drinking water has been found may have higher levels of PFAS in their bodies,” she said, adding that it might make sense to prioritize COVID-19 vaccines for those who have had blood tests confirming high PFAS exposure.
However, while the EWG advocates for vaccination, there are concerns about how PFAS exposure will affect its response in the body.
For example, a 2017 study linked exposure to PFAS in infancy with decreased response to vaccinations.
“I think that the risk is real, but we can’t put definitive numbers on those risks right now,” DeWitt said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.