Concern mounts over impact of toxic ‘forever chemicals’ in the Arctic

The compounds could make COVID-19 symptoms more severe.

By Jane George, Nunatsiaq News - October 21, 2020
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. (Nunatsiaq News file image)

Alarm is growing about the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in the Arctic, which have been found to harm peoples’ immune systems and may possibly increase the risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms.

Known as “forever chemicals,” these man-made fluorinated compounds are widely used in manufactured goods where they repel oil and water.

And when they get into the environment or into the human body, they can persist for years.

These harmful chemicals have been making their way into the Arctic’s waters and food chain.

A recently published study by 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 [to] 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 facing overcrowding, food insecurity, and that adds to all these stressors.”

These fluorinated compounds have been widely detected in drinking water, wastewater, soils, blood serum and food throughout the world.

In the Arctic, they have also been measured in caribou, moose, seal, trout, cod, salmon and Arctic char, and detected in the air, snow, soil, seawater and sediments, and as well as in drinking water and indoor dust.

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

Now medical researchers are also exploring a new troubling link between these PFAS and COVID-19.

These compounds can also leave people with health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure and kidney disease. These conditions, in turn, make them more susceptible to the more severe effects of COVID-19. In addition, these conditions can inhibit some functions of the immune system.

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.

Philippe Grandjean, a professor of environmental medicine at Harvard University, is currently studying the effects of PFAS exposure on patients with COVID-19. He’s published a study that said environmental stressors, such as these “forever chemicals,” contribute to certain chronic diseases and might aggravate the course of COVID-19.

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

The results of this latest research on the links between fluorinated compounds and COVID-19 should be made available within the week, Grandjean told Nunatsiaq News in a recent interview.

But research into the health effects of these fluorinated compounds is starting very late, Grandjean said.

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

These chemicals are 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.”

It should be a public health priority 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.