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Researchers plan to conduct three new studies to examine whether toxic chemicals in firefighting foam and other products, known as per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), may have contributed to the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the United States, or potentially make vaccines less effective.
The studies are being conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona, and are based on previous findings that suggest PFAS exposure can hinder the immune system, making individuals more vulnerable to infections, such as the novel coronavirus, according to a report by Tucson.com.
One study, known as Arizona Heroes, will look at data on more than 3,000 firefighters, as well as other first-responders and workers on the front lines of the pandemic. About 1,000 of those first responders either had COVID-19 at the beginning of the study, or contracted it later. The researchers seek to recruit another 1,000 subjects who have had COVID-19 and have not yet been vaccinated.
Another of the studies, titled Recover, will look at front-line workers nationwide. The third study, Paces, will collect blood from 100 to 120 firefighters in Arizona and Florida who have already had COVID-19, and will measure the levels of PFAS in their blood.
Only one similar study has been conducted to date. That was by researchers from Harvard and Denmark, who found those with higher levels of PFAS chemicals in their blood tended to suffer more severe cases of COVID-19.
PFAS and Firefighter Foam Environmental Concerns
PFAS were first introduced into the manufacturing industry in the 1940’s, because of their ability to resist heat, grease, stains, and water. However, since then the chemicals have been linked to a myriad of adverse health effects including liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression, and cancer.
The chemical substances are used to manufacture a number of products, including some firefighting foams, food packaging materials, pizza boxes, popcorn bags, fabrics, nonstick cooking pans, and other products. However, it is perhaps most known for its use in aqueous film-forming foams (AFFFs) used by military and civilian firefighters.
The firefighting foam has been regularly used at military bases nationwide over the past decade during routine training and fire extinguishing exercises, and there has been renewed focus on the health risks after the chemicals have been found to contaminate many local water supplies around the training sites.
It is projected to take thousands of years for PFAS to degrade, and past studies have shown their ability to enter and stay in the environment and human body through the air, dust, food, soil, and water. Previous U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studies have shown PFAS chemicals primarily settle into the blood, kidney and liver, and could likely be detected in the blood of 98% of the U.S. population.
Chemical manufacturers now face a growing number of firefighting foam lawsuits brought by individuals nationwide, including former fire fighters diagnosed with cancer and individuals who lived near military bases or training facilities where chemicals from the toxic foam contaminated drinking water supplies.