Researchers are increasingly concerned about the presence of toxic industrial contaminants called PFAS in the Arctic. These can damage the immune system and may also make people more susceptible to the more severe effects of COVID-19. (File image)

Concern mounts over impact of toxic “forever chemicals” in the Arctic

Fluorinated compounds can damage immune system, may increase COVID-19 severity

By Jane George

Alarm is growing over the presence of toxic man-made chemicals in the Arctic that can cripple peoples’ immune systems and may increase the risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms.

Known as “forever chemicals,” these fluorinated compounds, or PFAS for short, are widely used in manufactured goods where they repel oil and water.

But when they break down, they can persist for years and cause many health problems.

Now these harmful chemicals have made their way into the Arctic’s waters and food chain.

A recent study from Laval university researchers found that the concentration of fluorinated compounds in the blood of pregnant Nunavik women was two times higher than among the general Canadian population.

Researchers also linked marine country food consumption with higher exposure to the compounds.

Global action is needed to ban these chemicals, said Lucy Grey, a member of Nutaratsaliit Qanuingisiarningit Niqituinnanut, Nunavik’s nutrition and health committee, which will communicate the results of this research to people in Nunavik.

“We need to fight in the front to ask our government and citizens regulate and stop the chemicals because we are not going to stop eating our country foods,” Grey said. “We shouldn’t have to.

“As Aboriginal people, we should not have to be endangered when we are already facing so many challenges. In the North we’re faced overcrowding, food insecurity, and that adds to all these stressors.”

Although these fluorinated compounds have been widely detected in drinking water, wastewater, soils, blood serum and food throughout the world, most of these chemicals migrate to the Arctic through air or water.

They’re been detected in the Arctic air, snow, soil, water and sediments, measured in caribou, moose, seal, trout, cod, salmon and Arctic char as well as in drinking water and indoor dust.

Previous studies from the Faroe Islands and Greenland have shown these chemicals can affect immune systems and make some vaccinations less efficient.

But now medical researchers are also exploring a new troubling link between these fluorinated compounds or PFAS (per fluorinated alkyls) and COVID-19.

That’s because these compounds can also leave people with poor immune systems and underlying health conditions such as obesity, asthma, high blood pressure and kidney disease, and these, in turn, make them more susceptible to the severe impacts of COVID-19.

The United States Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has issued a statement about the potential intersection between PFAS exposure and COVID-19. It cited findings linking PFAS exposure to reductions in antibody responses to vaccines and resistance to infectious diseases.

To that end, Philippe Grandjean, an award-winning professor of of Environmental Medicine at Harvard University, is currently studying the effects of PFAS exposure on COVID-19 patients.

He’s already published a study that said environmental stressors, such as these “forever chemicals,” can contribute to certain chronic diseases and might aggravate the course of COVID-19. 

Grandjean is now analyzing PFAS levels in blood samples collected from COVID-19-positive patients to evaluate the potential connection between exposures at the individual level and COVID-19 severity.

Grandjean has collected blood samples of people who were hospitalized with COVID-19. He has then analyzed the samples for PFAS levels and compared them with PFAS levels from the blood of people who were infected with COVID-19 but did not end up hospitalized.

But research into the health effects of these fluorinated compounds is starting very late, Grandjean told Nunatsiaq News in a recent interview.

“They have been used for almost 50 years…before we started to look for health effects,” he said.

These chemicals are now found everywhere, from dental floss to guitar strings.

“Obviously, this is bound to cause exposures,” he said, calling that “a completely irrelevant use of toxic substances.”

“And obviously, none of the Arctic regions are responsible for this pollution that originates elsewhere. Other populations are reaping the benefits of these chemicals while the Arctic population is essentially paying for it with their health.”

So it’s a priority public health issue to safeguard the Arctic populations, he said.

Although these chemicals are regulated in Canada and in other countries, many other countries are still producing them, and, eventually, they end up in the Arctic.

The results of the latest research on the links between fluorinated compounds and COVID-19 should be published soon, Grandjean said.




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