This is a brief piece on the mind-boggling array of chemicals we house in our homes. From our food to our cosmetics, there are known harmful contaminants in a lot of the stuff we buy as ‘essentials’. This article lists some of these everyday hormone-disrupting chemicals, their sources and how they affect our immune system’s defenses; and thereby our ability to survive not just Covid-19 but many other infections.
During the rare moments you’ve ventured outside these days, you’ve 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.
You’ve 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. We’re 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 body’s release ofa 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 can’t 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 doesn’t 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. We’ve 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. You’ve 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 it’s 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 don’t appreciate the consequences of messing with Mother Nature and realize our immune systems are being hacked, too.
This article was originally written by Leonardo Trasande and Akhgar Ghassabian for The Guardian. The original article and links to further relevant resources can be found here.