New Jersey’s senior senator wants the U.S. government to find out if exposure to PFAS chemicals can make people more vulnerable to coronavirus.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez was part of a group of 19 senators, including Pennsylvania Democrat Robert Casey, to write to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service Alex Azar last week to inquire about whether the potential connection between PFAS exposure and COVID-19 was being “thoroughly examined.”
Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey’s largest military base, and Naval Weapons Station Earle in Colts Neck, Monmouth County, are among some 100-plus military bases across the nation where PFAS contamination has occurred.
“Studies have suggested that exposure to high levels of PFAS can have a detrimental effect on the body’s immune system, which can leave individuals with PFAS exposure at increased risk for complications from many different diseases and conditions,” the senators wrote. “It has been reported that more than 600 communities in at least 43 states are dealing with PFAS exposure. For these communities, it will be vital to gain a better understanding of how exposure to PFAS can impact the risks of contracting COVID-19, as well as the risks of COVID-19 complications or even death.”
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, PFAS — which stands for polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances — were a growing concern across the nation, particularly in communities with water contaminated with the compounds.
Called “forever chemicals” because they can persist in the human body and the environment for decades or even hundreds of years, PFAS can be found in firefighting foams used by the military and at a commercial airports, as well as a variety of household products, including non-stick cookware, food containers, floor waxes and other goods. Exposure has been linked to several health problems, including testicular and kidney cancer, high cholesterol and thyroid disease.
There’s now increasing concern that the chemicals might also make some people more vulnerable to COVID-19. While much is still unknown about both PFAS and the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has issued a statement warning that high levels of PFAS may impact the immune system.
“There is evidence from human and animal studies that PFAS exposure may reduce antibody responses to vaccines ... and may reduce infectious disease resistance,” the statement said. “ More research is needed to understand how PFAS exposure may affect illness from COVID-19.”
Congress has already approved more than $2.2 billion to support COVID-19-related research and vaccine development, and the senators suggested that some of that funding could be used to examine the possible connection.
The senators also inquired if ongoing studies of PFAS impacts could also examine COVID-19 vulnerabilities.
New Jersey was one of the most hard-hit states by the pandemic in March, April and May, but it’s unknown how many cases of infection occurred on New Jersey’ military installations because the Department of Defense ordered bases around the world to withhold their COVID-19 case numbers.
Meanwhile, the military continues to investigate the PFAS contamination at the joint base, including whether it has extended to the ground or surface water outside the installation. As part of that study, more than 250 private drinking water wells, although it has found just five above a health advisory level for the chemicals. It has also identified contamination at two on-base water wells on the Lakehurst side of the installation.
While the federal government has been slow to regulate the chemicals, New Jersey adopted its own stringent standards last month and will now require all operators of public water systems in the state to begin testing for them by April next year.
If water from systems test above the new state standards they will have to install a treatment system or take the wells offline.
Some federal lawmakers have pushed for the U.S. government to adopt similar standards nationwide.
Lawmakers have also pressed for the military to phase out their use of the chemicals and to clean up contaminated sites on or near installations.
Last year’s National Defense Authorization Act — an annual, must-pass military policy law — included language authored by Rep. Andy Kim, D-3 of Moorestown, to require the use of firefighting foams with PFAS chemicals to be phased out by 2024 and for the military to perform blood tests on any current and former service members or civilian workers who may have been exposed to it.
But the final House-Senate compromise signed into law dropped provisions pushed for by some House Democrats to require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to declare the chemicals “hazardous” and require the military to fund cleanup of PFAS contamination on and off their installations.
Lawmakers are adding more PFAS measures to this year’s NDAA, including $1.5 million for cleanup at current and former military installations and $150 million in funding for research into PFAS remediation and disposal and alternatives to the firefighting foam commonly used.