Scientists Pin Blame for Some Coronavirus Deaths 
on Air Pollution, PFAS, and Other Chemicals

<>Sharon Lerner

June 26 2020, 12:27 p.m.

Almost six months into the coronavirus pandemic, 
it’s already clear that environmental pollution 
is responsible for some portion of the hundreds 
of thousands of Covid-19 deaths around the world. 
Now scientists are trying to pinpoint how exactly 
industrial chemicals make people more susceptible 
to the coronavirus and how much of the blame for 
the devastation wrought by the new coronavirus 
should be laid at the feet of the industry that produces those chemicals.

The link between Covid-19 and air pollution is 
particularly strong. A 
set to publish in July linked six air pollutants 
in 120 Chinese cities with cases of the viral 
disease. Researchers in Italy have also 
that long-term exposure to air pollution is 
“significantly correlated with cases of Covid-19” 
in up to 71 provinces in that country. And a 
that used data from California, set to publish in 
Environmental Research in August, showed that the 
air pollutants PM2.5, PM 10, nitrogen dioxide, 
carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide were 
associated with coronavirus infections. The 
authors of that study concluded that reducing 
exposure to these pollutants “will contribute to defeating COVID-19.”

Scientists have even managed to measure the 
precise harm that a single microgram/cubic meter 
increase in air pollution has on a population, 
which, according to 
from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public 
Health, is “an 8% increase in mortality from COVID-19.”

While alarming, these findings aren’t surprising, 
according to Linda Birnbaum, the former director 
of the National Institutes for Environmental 
Health Sciences and the National Toxicology 
Program, who stepped down last year. “Everything 
in our health is determined by our environment,” she said.

In addition to air pollutants, Birnbaum pointed 
to the potential for endocrine-disrupting 
chemicals to make people more vulnerable to 
Covid-19. Among them are BPA and its 
replacements; phthalates, which are found in 
makeup, nail polish, and plastics, particularly 
food packaging; and 
a class of industrial contaminants most famously 
used to make 
and other nonstick products.

Exposure to even very small amounts of these 
chemicals has been linked with conditions that 
have been shown to make Covid-19 worse. 
Phthalates are associated with damage to lungs 
as well as to 
the second most common underlying condition in 
people who die of Covid-19, according to the 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 
which is often added to food packaging and drink 
bottles, is also linked to obesity, as well as asthma and diabetes.

PFAS, which also interferes with the functioning 
of the endocrine system, has been shown to cause 
several underlying conditions that leave people 
more vulnerable to Covid-19. People with higher 
levels of PFAS in their bodies are more likely to 
weight and have a harder time 
it. The chemicals not only increase obesity risk 
in those exposed, but also in the 
of women who were exposed. And PFAS is associated 
two other conditions that appear to worsen 
people’s chances of surviving Covid-19. PFAS 
causes kidney disease and 
levels of cholesterol and other fats in the 
blood, which also increase the chances that 
people with Covid-19 will be hospitalized or need intensive care.

majority of people who die of Covid-19 had at 
least one other illness before they got sick from 
the virus. Compared to people who didn’t have 
underlying conditions, patients who had kidney 
disease, diabetes, lung disease, and heart 
disease, among other conditions, are six times as 
likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19 and 12 
times as likely to die, according to the 
recent data from the CDC.

In addition to causing medical problems that make 
people more vulnerable to the coronavirus, 
several environmental contaminants, including 
PFAS, also directly weaken the body’s immune 
response. Studies have shown that in both adults 
and children higher levels of certain PFAS 
chemicals were associated with weaker responses 
to vaccines. The Agency for Toxic Substances and 
Disease Registry, a division of the CDC, 
recognized this evidence in an 
it recently posted to its website on the 
“potential intersection between PFAS exposure and Covid-19.”

With the pre-pandemic knowledge of the effects of 
individual chemicals and the maps showing that 
Covid-19 is ravaging polluted areas, the next 
step for researchers is to address how exactly 
chemicals make individual people more susceptible 
to Covid-19. “We now know pollution is associated 
with increased infections and more 
hospitalizations,” said Birnbaum. “So it has a 
role. The question is how much of a role and how 
do you show that an individual is getting sick is 
because they have higher levels?”

Philippe Grandjean, a Danish scientist who was 
the first to show that children with relatively 
levels had immune deficits and were more likely 
to get respiratory infections, has already begun 
to try to answer this question. Grandjean is in 
the process of collecting blood samples of people 
who were hospitalized with Covid-19 ­ “just a few 
drops of the serum from leftover blood samples 
that hadn’t been used” ­ analyzing them for PFAS 
levels, and comparing them with PFAS levels from 
the blood of people who were infected with the 
coronavirus but not hospitalized.

“We really need to understand the connection 
between exposures at the individual level and 
Covid-19 severity,” Grandjean said. While noting 
that several environmental contaminants likely 
increase the risk of the disease, Grandjean 
expressed particular concern about PFAS compounds 
because they can remain in the body for years and 
some of them tend to concentrate in the lungs. 
Grandjean, who is conducting the research in 
Denmark, hopes to have results of the study within the year.

Others are using animal experiments to explore 
how chemical exposure affects the impact of the 
coronavirus. Paige Lawrence, a professor of 
environmental medicine at the University of 
Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, plans 
to infect mice with a mouse-adapted human 
coronavirus that was built from the 2003 SARS 
pandemic and study how exposure to PFAS alters 
the course of the viral infection.

“We need to understand at a cellular level what’s 
changed” by chemical exposure, she said. “We 
can’t improve health if we don’t know what we’re 
trying to fix.” Lawrence’s past research has 
shown that the environmental contaminants dioxin 
and PCBs change the immune system by binding to 
receptor cells ­ an effect that, in the case of 
lasts for generations.
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While the research is underway, many of the 
people in highly polluted communities worry about 
the greater risk they may face during the 
pandemic. “I think about it a lot,” said Hope 
Grosse, a resident of Warminster, Pennsylvania, 
who developed stage 4 cancer while drinking water 
that had been contaminated with PFAS from 
firefighting foam used at a nearby naval base. 
“My immune system was definitely impacted.” 
Grosse, who had 25 lymph nodes removed during her 
cancer treatment, resumed her work as a realtor 
last month and wears gloves and a mask when she 
shows houses. “I’m as careful as I can be, but I still worry,” she said.

Whatever we learn from the research now in the 
pipeline, some scientists say there is already 
enough evidence to lay blame for at least a 
portion of the toll of the virus on chemicals ­ and their manufacturers.

“Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are clearly 
involved in driving the comorbidities and are 
heightening mortality risk from Covid-19,” said 
Pete Myers, founder and chief scientist of 
Environmental Health Sciences. “You can’t hide 
from that truth.” Myers is one of several 
environmental scientists who have been pushing 
for more than a decade ­ with little success ­ 
for government to limit the use of these chemicals.

“The American Chemistry Council has impeded our 
ability to develop meaningful regulations,” said 
Myers, referring to a powerful chemical industry 
trade group. “And the result of that is that 
these comorbidities have become epidemic over the 
last three decades. And now more people are dying than would have.”

Update: June 26, 2020

After publication, the American Chemistry Council 
responded with the following statement:

Chemicals are essential to winning the fight 
against COVID-19 – federal and state officials 
have unanimously made that point clear. ACC 
members produce critical ingredients for cleaning 
and disinfecting solutions, hand sanitizer, 
medical supplies, and personal protective 
equipment for frontline workers. Our industry is 
working tirelessly to continue to help save lives 
and stop the spread of the virus.
The scientific community has a critical role to 
play in mitigating the spread not only of the 
virus, but of dangerous misinformation about its 
causes, effects, and potential treatments. 
Speculation about chemicals contributing to 
potentially adverse COVID-19 outcomes, this early 
in the pandemic, with absolutely no evidence, 
falls into the category of disinformation. We 
urge the public to be wary of individuals who 
seem all too quick to attach personal research 
interests and radical policy beliefs about 
chemical safety to this tragic pandemic.