Read the full article by Sascha Medina (The Daily Tar Heel)

“Residents in southeastern North Carolina who have been exposed to chemicals in public drinking water are experiencing compounding effects from the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccine may not protect them as intended. 

These chemicals, called GenX, are present in the Cape Fear River and are putting residents at risk by suppressing their immune systems and causing other health issues. 

GenX is a member of a family of human-made chemical compounds known as PFAS. GenX chemicals are used in commercial products such as nonstick coating on cookware and food packaging. 

GenX exposure is associated with increased risk of health problems in animal studies, including issues in the kidney, liver, immune system and others, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Additionally, it can increase the risk of cancer.

PFAS chemicals have been called ‘forever chemicals’ because they are unable to decompose in the environment, instead accumulating in living organisms. Jamie DeWitt, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University, said these chemicals can take up to 100 years to break down. 

GenX and PFAS contamination is widespread in the Cape Fear region from Fayetteville downstream to Wilmington, Beth Markesino, president of the nonprofit North Carolina Stop Gen-X In Our Water, said. She said scientists have found these chemicals in the Cape Fear River, the air, rainwater and even soil. 

What are the risks associated with COVID-19?

Research has shown from human and animal studies that PFAS exposure may reduce antibody response to vaccines and may reduce infectious disease resistance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

DeWitt said there is concern for residents who are heavily exposed to GenX due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

She said because the chemicals have been proven to inhibit immune function, it has the possibility to increase the severity or the infection rate of COVID-19 cases. DeWitt said ongoing research should better inform doctors and scientists in the future.

‘When exposed to PFAS, it could be the rate of infection that increases,’ she said. ‘You’re maybe more likely to get infected. And then if you’re infected, there might be an increased likelihood of you having a severe infection.’ 

Even more worrisome, she said, is the effect GenX and PFAS can have on the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine. She said because GenX and PFAS chemicals inhibit immune function, the intended immune response could also be inhibited. 

‘When the COVID vaccine becomes available, people who live in highly contaminated areas might not be able to develop appropriate responses to the vaccine,’ DeWitt said. ‘So that vaccine might not be as protective in them as it is in other people…”’