WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez today joined several of his colleagues in urging the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to examine the potential risks that COVID-19 may pose on individuals exposed to polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals. PFAS, often found in firefighting foam used on military bases, are toxic chemicals and known carcinogens, which can cause cancer, birth defects and immune suppression.

“Studies have suggested that exposure to high levels of PFAS can have a detrimental effect on the body’s immune system, which can leave individuals with PFAS exposure at increased risk for complications from many different diseases and conditions,” the senators wrote in a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “It has been reported that more than 600 communities in at least 43 states are dealing with PFAS exposure. For these communities, it will be vital to gain a better understanding of how exposure to PFAS can impact the risks of contracting COVID-19, as well as the risks of COVID-19 complications or even death.”

PFAS were used for decades in products such as non-stick cookware and firefighting foams used on military bases. A study conducted last year by the non-profit, non-partisan Environmental Working Group found that firefighting foam containing PFAS used at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (JBMDL) and Naval Weapons Station Earle seeped into the ground and contaminated the groundwater in and around each base. Samples of drinking water taken at JBMDL showed contamination levels 24 times higher than the national threshold. Levels were three times higher at Earle.

Elevated levels of PFAS have also been found in cities and towns across New Jersey. New Jersey recently enacted some of the most stringent drinking water standards in the state for two PFAS chemicals. These standards will require water suppliers to test and remediate any water with levels of these chemicals that exceed state regulations.

In their letter, the senators’ cited the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which found that “PFAS exposure may reduce antibody responses to vaccines” and called for greater research to “understand how PFAS exposure may affect illness from COVID-19.”

Between the CARES Act and the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, Congress provided the National Institute of Health (NIH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with over $2.2 billion to support COVID-19-related research, vaccine development and health data surveillance. The senators’ called on HHS to use this funding, as well as annual appropriations, to examine the connection between PFAS and COVID-19.

“Together we hope to foster a better understanding of any unique risks that COVID-19 may pose for people with PFAS exposure so that we can address the health impact of exposure to these chemicals,” the letter concluded.

Aside from Sen. Menendez, the letter was also signed by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Bob Casey (D-Penn.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

A copy of the letter can be found here.