Everyday hormone-disrupting chemicals could affect our immune systems defenses against infections
During the rare moments youve ventured outside these days, youve probably noticed clearer skies and the benefits of reductions in air pollution.
Long-term exposure to air pollution increases the danger associated with four of the biggest Covid-19 mortality risks: diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease and asthma. It also can make the immune system overreact, exaggerating the inflammatory response to common pathogens.
But there are other common contaminants in our homes that are also likely to be hacking our immune systems, which have had less attention.
Youve probably heard about synthetic chemicals in non-stick pans, cosmetics and aluminum cans disrupting our hormones. The notion of endocrine-disrupting chemicals was only widely accepted about a decade ago, when scientific societies raised the alarm. The science of immune disruption is even newer, with a large review in a major scientific journal just out last year.
You may have heard of forever chemicals, or perfluoroalkylsubstances (PFAS) from the movie Dark Waters, with Mark Ruffalo. These chemicals, used to keep food from sticking to surfaces and our clothing free of oily stains, are widely found in the US water supply. Were talking about chemicals that 110 million Americans drink each day that increase the death rate of mice exposed to influenza type A. Children exposed during pregnancy have worse immune responses to vaccines, with weaker antibody responses. Studies in Norway, Sweden and Japan have found greater difficulties in children with various infections, ranging from colds to stomach bugs to ear infections.
Bisphenol A, or BPA, which is found in thermal paper receipts and aluminum can linings, has been found in the laboratory to increase the bodys release of a molecule called interleukin-6, or IL-6, that may be involved in the raging wildfire inside the lung that has already killed so many from coronaviruses. One of the more promising treatments for coronavirus patients is tocilizumab, an antibody to IL-6. Phthalates, used in cosmetics, personal care products and food packaging, alter levels of cytokines, which are key players in the immune response to coronavirus.
Is the evidence perfect? Hardly. And we have to rely on observational studies you cant run a randomized controlled trial of potentially toxic mixtures of virus and chemical exposures. There are ethical and logistical challenges to running these kinds of studies. But absence of evidence doesnt mean absence of harm.
Long-term lifestyle changes
Will preventing these exposures now change exposure to the novel coronavirus? No. Stay home, wash your hands with soap and water at least 30 seconds at a time, and keep your social distancing game strong. Right now, we need to keep as calm as we can and carry on as best we can. Weve overcome other disasters 9/11, Katrina and Sandy, to name just a few. And once we return to normal, we can limit these exposures in our daily lives using cast iron and stainless steel instead of nonstick pans, avoiding canned food consumption, and reducing the use of plastic in our lives.
But when we return to normal, we have to ask ourselves how and why we got here, just like we did for those disasters. West Nile, Zika, dengue, Ebola and other infections are on the rise, and they are attacking us when our immune defenses are being attacked by preventable contaminants in the environment. Government and industry have dragged their feet time and again to limit these exposures because of intense economic pressure. Youve probably heard that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has used the coronavirus pandemic to waive its enforcement rules, allowing companies to pollute without consequences.
But its not just at the EPA where science has undermined human health over chemicals that can affect the immune system. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has failed to protect kids from known hazards in food packaging and other contact surfaces, allowing industry to vouch for safety without careful study of potential adverse effects. And when negative effects are found, the FDA is limited in its ability to require companies to stop using toxic ingredients in its materials.
Infections are not just something we vaccinate away or treat. New infections will emerge even more in the future if we dont appreciate the consequences of messing with Mother Nature and realize our immune systems are being hacked, too.
Leonardo Trasande is Jim G Hendrick MD professor of pediatrics at NYU Grossman school of medicine, and the author of Sicker, Fatter, Poorer, which describes the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on human health and the economy and what we can do about it. Akhgar Ghassabian is a physician-epidemiologist in the department of pediatrics at NYU Grossman, where she studies the effects of synthetic chemicals on immune function and childrens health