Contaminated Water Could Threaten The Immune System. Did This Contribute to the COVID-19 Pandemic?

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There is no shortage of disturbing news these days, especially pertaining to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and global health crisis. But could contaminants in our water have contributed to some of the social and public health disparities we have seen throughout the pandemic? 

The racial and socioeconomic inequities in the COVID-19 pandemic are well-documented. Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities have disproportionately contracted the virus at higher rates, and had poorer health outcomes even when they sought treatment for the virus. These disparities have only become starker as the pandemic has worsened in recent weeks, and our healthcare systems have become stretched thinner and thinner. 

“People from racial and ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected by lack of access to quality health care, health insurance, and/or linguistically and culturally responsive health care. Inequities in treatment may result in distrust of government and healthcare systems. Such barriers increase risks for poor health and health outcomes by limiting health promotion, disease and injury prevention, and condition management activities.” 

Source: COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, CDC

But a new culprit has emerged in recent months to explain these disparities: toxicity in our drinking water. Scientists at the Harvard T. Chan School of Public Health have noted the strong relationship between certain contaminants and a lowered immune response, or ability to fight off viral infection. This relationship has been acknowledged by the CDC.  

“CDC /ATSDR recognizes that exposure to high levels of PFAS may impact the immune system. There is evidence from human and animal studies that PFAS exposure may reduce antibody responses to vaccines (Grandjean et al., 2017, Looker et al., 2014), and may reduce infectious disease resistance (NTP, 2016). 

Source: Statement on Potential Intersection between PFAS Exposure and COVID-19, CDC/ATSDR

There is not enough research yet that studies this link between lowered immune response due to water contamination and the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the evidence is undeniable. Water contamination disproportionately targets communities of color and low income communities, the same populations that have had dramatically higher rates of infection and poor health outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Water quality, and its (poor) regulation by federal and local authorities, affects nearly every area of human life on this planet. We all need safe water to survive, and to live long, healthy, and prosperous lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven over and over again that our longstanding social and political inequities are inescapable, and shape the landscape of public health in this country. Contaminants in our water have likely sharpened the impacts of these inequities around COVID-19, and worsened the capacity for vulnerable populations to fight off this virus. 

We need solutions to our water crisis now. One place we can start is knowing what’s in our water, and demanding better regulation and better access to safe water for every citizen of this planet. Our work has never been more urgent.  

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