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Senate Democrats Ask Whether PFAS Worsens Coronavirus Cases (1)

June 29, 2020, 5:25 PMUpdated: June 29, 2020, 7:27 PM

Senate Democrats want to know whether being exposed to PFAS chemicals, which have become ubiquitous in the environment, worsens the effect of the coronavirus on the human body.

Nearly 20 senators, including Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said they are concerned that being exposed to the chemicals weakens the body’s immune system, potentially affecting the risks of contracting Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“We hope to foster a better understanding of any unique risks that COVID-19 may pose for people with PFAS exposure so that we can address the health impact of exposure to these chemicals,” the senators wrote in a June 26 letter.

The letter, addressed to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, asks whether the National Institutes of Health plan to research the interaction of PFAS exposure and Covid-19, and whether the agencies need more resources to do so.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of thousands of chemicals found in a range of consumer and industrial products, including nonstick pans, carpeting, and firefighting foam. Many states have found the chemicals in drinking water, and some have set guidelines or regulations to limit consumption.

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Two chemicals in the PFAS family, PFOA and PFOS, are presumed to be hazardous to the human immune system, the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program said in a 2016 paper.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) was studying U.S. communities most affected by PFAS contamination—such as Parchment, Mich.; Montgomery County and Bucks County, Pa.; and Hoosick Falls, N.Y.— to get a clearer picture of how the chemicals affect the human body. The agency put the study on hold due to the pandemic.

The senators’ letter is a response to ATSDR’s notice that it had been hearing concerns from those communities about how PFAS exposure may affect the risks of Covid-19 infection, said Sarah Q. Weinstein, spokeswoman for Shaheen’s office.

The agency noted PFAS exposure may reduce the body’s resistance to infectious diseases.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS may also cause other adverse health effects, including developmental harm to fetuses, testicular and kidney cancer, liver tissue damage, thyroid effects, and changes in cholesterol.

(Adds comment from Shaheen's spokeswoman in eighth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Sylvia Carignan in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Renee Schoof at