Superfund Research Program

November 2021

Researchers at the NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center at North Carolina State University (NCSU) are exploring connections between exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and immune function in both animals and humans. They are gaining insight into how exposure to PFAS over decades may harm the immune system and the body’s ability to fight off infections, including COVID-19.

The Cape Fear River basin provides a home to wildlife and drinking water for over 1.5 million people throughout central and eastern North Carolina. This basin has high levels of PFAS contamination from firefighting foam use, current and former chemical manufacturing plants, and PFAS-containing products in landfills. In particular, the Wilmington area has high levels of PFAS in the river, adjoining lakes, and drinking water supplies. PFAS tend to accumulate in the environment because they do not break down easily.

Alligators may be the new canaries

SRP trainee handling alligator
Belcher, left, and Baker, right, study alligators in areas with high and low PFAS levels to compare health outcomes. (Photo courtesy of NCSU trainee MaKayla Foster)

NCSU SRP Center researchers Scott Belcher, Ph.D., and Erin Baker, Ph.D., are studying alligators living in PFAS-polluted waters in the Wilmington area compared to an alligator population in a different watershed with lower PFAS exposure.

Alligators have a similar immune system to humans, making them useful for understanding how PFAS may harm both animals and humans. Alligators are also top predators with long lifespans of about 30 years, providing insight into how long-term exposure to PFAS can affect health.

The research team compares blood samples from the two alligator populations and examines them for wounds, infections, and other signs of illness.

According to the researchers, alligators in the Wilmington area have much higher levels of PFAS in their blood, often have visible wounds or infections that are not healing properly, and are generally in poorer health than the population with lower PFAS exposure.

Connecting PFAS to Covid-19 outcomes in humans

Jane Hoppin, Ph.D., a researcher at the NCSU SRP Center, studies PFAS exposure among communities in the Cape Fear region and potential health effects. Her team recently received supplemental funding from SRP to expand their project’s scope to include research on how exposure to PFAS can affect immune response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“The immune system is responsible for everything, how you respond to an infection, or how you respond to an allergy,” Hoppin explained in a local Raleigh news outlet. “And so, for COVID, do people who have higher PFAS get sicker when they get COVID? Are they more likely to [have long-term health effects from] COVID? We don’t yet know the answers to these questions,” she said.

Her team will look at communities throughout the Cape Fear River region to assess how individuals with higher PFAS exposures may differ in their immune response if they get COVID-19. The project will also look at how PFAS may alter the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines to determine if boosters may be needed more frequently in communities with high PFAS levels.