How Chemicals Like PFAS Can Increase Your Risk of Severe COVID-19
By Kathryn Crawford
Nearly a year before the novel coronavirus emerged, Dr. Leonardo Trasande published "Sicker, Fatter, Poorer," a book about connections between environmental pollutants and many of the most common chronic illnesses. The book describes decades of scientific research showing how endocrine-disrupting chemicals, present in our daily lives and now found in nearly all people, interfere with natural hormones in our bodies. The title sums up the consequences: Chemicals in the environment are making people sicker, fatter and poorer.
As we learn more about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, research is revealing ugly realities about social and environmental effects on health – including how the same chronic illnesses associated with exposure to endocrine-disrupting compounds also increase your risk of developing severe COVID-19.
In the U.S. and abroad, the chronic disease epidemic that was already underway at the start of 2020 meant the population entered into the coronavirus pandemic in a state of reduced health. Evidence is now emerging for the role that environmental quality plays in people's susceptibility to COVID-19 and their risk of dying from it.
Why Endocrine Disruptors Are a Problem
Endocrine-disrupting compounds, or EDCs, are a broad group of chemicals that can interfere with natural hormones in people's bodies in ways that harm human health. They include perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS, flame retardants, plasticizers, pesticides, antimicrobial products and fragrances, among others.
These chemicals are pervasive in modern life. They are found in a wide range of consumer goods, food packaging, personal care products, cosmetics, industrial processes and agricultural settings. EDCs then make their way into our air, water, soil and food.
Research has shown that people who are exposed to EDCs are more likely than others to develop metabolic disorders, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol, and they tend to have poorer cardiovascular health.
EDCs can also interfere with normal immune system function, which plays a critical role in fighting off infection. Poor immune function also contributes to pulmonary problems such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease; and metabolic disorders. Many EDCs are also associated with different cancers.
EDCs Can Mimic Human Hormones
EDCs affect human health by mimicking our natural hormones.
Hormones are chemical signals that our cells use to communicate with one another. You might be familiar with reproductive hormones – testosterone and estrogen – which help distinguish male and female physiology and reproduction. Yet, hormones are responsible for maintaining virtually all essential bodily functions, including metabolism and healthy blood pressure, blood sugar and inflammation.
The chemical shape or structure of EDCs resembles hormones in ways that cause the body to misinterpret an EDC for a natural signal from a hormone.
A comparison of the structures of estradiol (left), a female sex hormone, and BPA (right), an endocrine disruptor found in plastics often used in containers for storing food and beverages. Wikimedia
Because the human body is very sensitive to hormones, only small amounts of hormones are required to convey their intended signal. Therefore, very small exposures to EDCs can have dramatic, adverse affects on people's health.
Environmental Quality and COVID-19
Researchers are only just beginning to paint a picture about how environmental quality contributes to COVID-19 susceptibility, and there is much we still don't know. However, scientists suspect that EDCs can play a role based on clear scientific evidence that EDCs increase people's risk of developing chronic diseases that put people at greater risk from COVID-19.
Public health organizations such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Heath Organization officially recognize underlying health conditions – including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, immunosuppression, chronic respiratory disease and cancer – as risk factors for critical illness and mortality from COVID-19.
Scientific evidence shows that EDC exposure increases people's risk of developing all of these conditions. Scientists are thinking about these connections, and research efforts are underway to answer more questions about how EDCs may be influencing the pandemic.
Air Pollution and Other Environmental Risks
In addition to EDCs, other environmental conditions are also likely playing a role in the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, multiple studies have reported increased risk of COVID-19 illness and deaths. The findings are consistent with those reported in China following the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003.
Recent evidence also shows that COVID-19 infection can lead to lingering health conditions, including heart damage. Environmental conditions such as heat waves are particularly dangerous for individuals with heart disease or heart damage. In places like California that are currently experiencing wildfires and heat waves, we can clearly see how multiple environmental conditions can combine to further increase risk of deaths associated with COVID-19.
In the U.S., regulations such as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act have improved environmental quality and human health since the 1970s. However, the Trump administration has been trying to weaken them.
In the past three and a half years, about 35 environmental rules and regulations pertaining to air quality or toxic substances like EDCs were either rolled back or are in the process of being removed, despite unambiguous evidence showing how poor environmental quality harms human health. Allowing more pollution threatens to exacerbate the trend toward a sicker, fatter and poorer America at a time when people's overall health is necessary for our collective resilience to COVID-19 and future global health challenges.
Kathryn Crawford is an assistant professor of environmental health at Middlebury College.
Disclosure statement: Kathryn Crawford has received funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
Creating a Global Sustainable Transition<p>How the world recovers from COVID-19's economic damage could help drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix.</p><p>Nearly one-third of Europe's US$2 trillion economic relief package <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/eu-approves-biggest-green-stimulus-in-history-with-572-billion-plan" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">involves investments that are also good for the climate</a>. The European Union is also strengthening its 2030 climate targets, though each country's energy and climate plans will be critical for successfully implementing them. The <a href="https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Biden plan</a> – including a $2 trillion commitment to developing sustainable energy and infrastructure – is aligned with a global energy transition, but its implementation is also uncertain.</p><p>Once Biden takes office, Kerry will be joining ongoing <a href="https://www.un.org/en/conferences/energy2021/about#:%7E:text=The%20overarching%20goal%20of%20the,2030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development.&text=Accelerate%20delivery%20of%20United%20Nations,related%20issues%20at%20all%20levels." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high-level discussions on the energy transition</a> at the U.N. General Assembly and other gatherings of international leaders. With the U.S. no longer obstructing work on climate issues, the G-7 and G-20 have more potential for progress on energy and climate.</p><p>Lots of technical details still need to be worked out, including international trade frameworks and standards that can help countries lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming in check. <a href="https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon pricing</a> and <a href="https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-can-europe-get-carbon-border-adjustment-right" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon border adjustment taxes</a>, which create incentive for companies to reduce emissions, may be part of it. A consistent and comprehensive set of national energy transition plans will also be needed.</p><p>The global shift to <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/A-New-World-The-Geopolitics-of-the-Energy-Transformation" target="_blank">clean energy will also have geopolitical implications for countries and regions</a>, and this will have a profound impact on wider international relations. Kerry, with his experience as secretary of state in the Obama administration, and Biden's plan to make the climate envoy position part of the National Security Council, may help mend these relations. In doing so, the U.S. may again join the wider community of countries willing to lead.</p>
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By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.
We Need More Than Listening<p>By now we have all become sadly accustomed to the current administration sidelining scientists, most prominently Dr. Anthony Fauci, because the facts they provide do not fit with the political rhetoric of the moment.</p><p>I have <a href="https://www.csldf.org/2019/08/22/csldf-helps-climate-scientist-maria-caffrey-fight-for-scientific-integrity/" target="_blank">my own history</a> of filing a scientific integrity complaint with the National Park Service (which falls under the Department of the Interior) after senior ranking employees attempted to censor one of my scientific reports. I know all too well the damage and pain that these actions cause, not just for the individual scientist, but also because these <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/attacks-on-science" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">attacks on science</a> over the last few years have undermined sound, evidence-based decision making.</p><p>President-elect Biden has repeatedly said that he will <a href="https://thehill.com/homenews/521638-trump-biden-will-listen-to-the-scientists-if-elected" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">listen to the scientists</a>. While this is certainly a welcome change, listening can only take us so far. This past week Lauren Kurtz from the <a href="https://www.csldf.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Climate Science Legal Defense Fund</a> and my colleague <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/about/people/gretchen-goldman" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gretchen Goldman</a> published <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ten-steps-that-can-restore-scientific-integrity-in-government/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an article</a> listing 10 actions the new administration should implement to show their commitment to strengthening government science:</p><ol><li>Clearly prohibit political interference and censorship.</li><li>Protect scientists' communication rights.</li><li>Acknowledge that attempts to violate scientific integrity, even if ultimately not fruitful, are still violations.</li><li>Protect federal scientists' right to provide information to Congress and other lawmakers.</li><li>Commit to incorporating the best science as part of agency decisions.</li><li>Elevate agency scientific integrity policies to have the full force of law.</li><li>Publicly release anonymized information about scientific integrity complaints and their resolutions at every agency.</li><li>Institute an intra-agency workforce, potentially under the White House <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/strengthening-science-and-si-at-ostp.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Office of Science and Technology Policy</a>, to coordinate scientific integrity efforts across agencies, foster discussion of policy improvements, and standardize criteria for policies across agencies.</li><li>Strengthen whistleblower protections.</li><li>Ensure that policies cover all actors who will be dealing with science.</li></ol>
Time for Action<p>I have spoken to many scientists, particularly federal scientists, who are eager to turn the page so they can hurry back to the work they had been doing before this administration, but I urge caution in assuming that things can be "normal" again.</p><p>Before Trump, I naively thought the scientific integrity policies established during the <a href="https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/12/19/scientific-integrity-policies-update" target="_blank">Obama administration</a> would be sufficient. I never imagined that any administration could so willfully ignore and attack expert advice and evidence that is intended to protect us and our public lands.</p><p>I have personally witnessed how hard our federal scientists work. They put in long hours with minimal pay (far less that what they could get if they worked in private industry) to pursue one simple goal: to make things better for the nation.</p><p>We need stronger scientific integrity policies to protect these people and their work. But more than that, we need stronger scientific integrity laws because they also benefit society.</p>
By Andrea Germanos
Environmental campaigners stressed the need for the incoming Biden White House to put in place permanent protections for Alaska's Bristol Bay after the Trump administration on Wednesday denied a permit for the proposed Pebble Mine that threatened "lasting harm to this phenomenally productive ecosystem" and death to the area's Indigenous culture.
<div id="da98c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="478a197b7c59c92787c92bec92f1ac39"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1331662923710693376" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Bristol Bay forever, Pebble mine never. #NoPebbleMine #SaveBristolBay https://t.co/CBQ9zuy8A5</div> — Save Bristol Bay (@Save Bristol Bay)<a href="https://twitter.com/SaveBristolBay/statuses/1331662923710693376">1606328156.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Gwen Ranniger
In the midst of a pandemic, sales of cleaning products have skyrocketed, and many feel a need to clean more often. Knowing what to look for when purchasing cleaning supplies can help prevent unwanted and dangerous toxics from entering your home.