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Veterans exposed to PFAS chemicals may have weakened immune systems

By Miguel Levya

Photo via Pixabay January 28, 2021 (San Diego)

As many communities continue to see COVID-19 spread, one of the most important questions surrounding the pandemic remains: why are some people hit harder than others? Certain underlying medical conditions might account for the differential response, but there’s still variation in impact even among these people who are at higher risk. An important clue could be found in an individual’s previous exposure to various chemical substances. An important percentage of the U.S. population who is most at risk for exposure to several chemicals, thus making it more difficult to fight off COVID-19, are the veterans. And among the class of chemicals known to adversely impact the immune system are per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” - given that, once in the environment, they are present more or less in perpetuity - are man-made substances that have a variety of uses, including in firefighting foams.

While many questions still remain about the potential impact of PFAS exposure, current studies offer some insight into the fact that these chemicals may be exacerbating the effects COVID-19 can have on the immune system. The National Toxicology Program, the country’s top toxicological research agency, has evaluated certain chemicals in this class and found them to be directly associated with adverse effects on the immune system

The PFAS-containing foams designed for flammable liquid fires, dubbed aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF), have been used on approximately 305 military bases, which have likely contaminated drinking water and groundwater on or around the bases. 

Veterans face an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 

Veterans are at greater risk of coronavirus due to underlying conditions. Of the 18.6 million veterans in the United States, a significant percentage suffer from underlying medical conditions and more than half are 65 or older. Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cast a spotlight on the fact that underlying health conditions, such as chronic respiratory diseases, can increase the risk of coronavirus infection. These underlying conditions are more prevalent for veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reported at least 83,383 COVID-19 cumulative cases and 4,223 known deaths on its tracking site. These are veterans who died of coronavirus infections at VA hospitals. 

Exposure to toxic substances: the cause of numerous medical problems among veterans

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified and cast a spotlight on the leading causes of death and disability. One such important cause of underlying health conditions stems from exposure to PFAS during military service. 


Researchers have found associations between PFAS and a wide range of serious health impacts, including increased cholesterol levels, and increased risk of kidney or testicular cancers.

These health impacts result from long-term PFAS exposure that accrued over the years. Firefighters and veterans were at risk for exposure when they used chemicals containing PFAS to fight fires, from contaminated training areas, or contaminated water on the military bases.

Studies have found PFAS have an important impact on the acquired immune system. In some studies, the cells of the acquired immune systems are observed to be suppressed by exposure to PFAS. With too little of these cells, the body may not efficiently fight off a pathogen. 

In other studies, PFAS exposure appears to result in the overactivity of the cells. With too much activity of the acquired immune system, the body may experience chronic inflammation, which is associated with a range of health effects such as diabetes, arthritis, and cancer. 

These are fairly notable findings in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. As PFAS exposure is a risk factor for harmful health effects, these same diseases put veterans at a higher risk from COVID-19. That said, the association between diseases caused by exposure to PFAS and increased risk of developing severe symptoms from COVID-19 requires substantial research to be assessed.

If anything, the pandemic highlights the importance of integrated thinking and approaches. From state level to nation-wide level, decisions are made about investments meant to recover from the COVID-19 epidemic. Considering actions that will address the physical impact of military service can help to protect the health of the veteran population.

Benefits wrongfully denied or delayed

Veterans struggle to get the benefits they have earned. It’s deeply saddening to see how often the scales of justice are tipped against them.

 For instance, according to the VA's Office of Inspector General (OIG), the VA did not cover emergency medical treatment for about 17,400 veterans, leaving them to pay out-of-pocket. OIG's report said that 31 percent of claims were denied and 60 percent of those denials were in error. In a six-month period, veterans were forced to pay $53.3 million in medical bills after getting emergency care at non-VA facilities. These are costs they never should have had to pay and the government should have covered.


This legal problem threatens basic human needs: receiving necessary medical treatment. To make matters worse, far too often, veterans, especially those disabled and with low-income, don't know their rights and don’t get the help they need when their rights are violated. 


The veterans who have honorably served our country deserve their benefits. However, VA has admitted there is a high error rate when evaluating disability claims, which may be caused by red tape or bureaucratic mistakes. On top of this, on average, an application gets reviewed and approved for benefits in almost one year. 


The VA needs to do more to help veterans and their families, especially if they've lost jobs as a result of the pandemic, as these benefits will be a lifeline for them. 


Because the VA provides monetary benefits to many veterans, it has considerable power to ensure that they and their families have a steady source of income, a key component of healthy living. Thus, the VA needs to strive for expedited processing of all claims and other requests involving financial hardship. 


The COVID-19 crisis is changing every day. The needs of our nation’s most vulnerable veterans are, accordingly, periodically shifting. As they served our country with honor, we need to rise to the challenge of finding every opportunity to protect them and ensure that their most pressing needs are addressed.


About the author: Miguel Leyva is a case manager at Atraxia Law, a firm dedicated to helping firefighters and veterans who were victims of occupational exposure to PFAS. Miguel helps with gathering evidence to support their case, which is bound to result in the financial compensation they deserve.

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