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Is Water Pollution Exacerbating COVID-19 in Newburgh?

An industrial accident from 30 years ago could be worsening a coronavirus hot spot today.

Firefighting foam from a release at Stewart Airport in April 2019 is seen in Silver Stream. Silver Stream flows into Moodna Creek, and then on to the Hudson River.
Photo courtesy of Riverkeeper
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The Newburgh Clean Water Project was founded to address the city’s exposure to perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—industrial chemicals which had accidentally been introduced to Newburgh’s water supply in 1990. PFAS are linked to a number of medical conditions, such as kidney cancer, impaired liver function, and chronic intestinal inflammation, but the project’s residents-turned-activists now fear that they have a new PFAS-related concern to grapple with: COVID-19.

“Emerging evidence is linking severity of COVID, as well as potential loss of effectiveness of vaccines, with PFAS,” explains Tamsin Hollo, a member of the Newburgh Clean Water Project, referring to a recent study which found that COVID-19 cases may be exacerbated by exposure to PFAS. The study is only the latest in a body of research whose findings suggest that the contamination of Newburgh’s water three decades ago may be worsening the consequences of the pandemic today, and could even hamper recovery efforts.

PFAS are engineered chemicals used in a wide array of industrial and consumer products, including cookware, fabrics, cosmetics, and firefighting foam. PFAS do not break down, so their production and use enables them to leach into soil, water, and air. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services, widespread use of PFAS since the 1950s has led to their presence in food products and even human blood today.

A recent study conducted by Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health and other researchers examined the influence of PFAS exposure on COVID-19 outcomes. Reviewing the blood plasma samples from 323 subjects with COVID, researchers found that elevated levels of perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA), a type of PFAS, were associated with more severe cases of COVID, including higher rates of admission to intensive care units and death. The study concludes:

Increased plasma-PFBA concentrations were associated with a greater severity of COVID-19 prognosis, and this tendency remained after adjustment for sex, age, comorbidities, national origin, sampling location and time. Although PFBA occurred in lower plasma concentrations than most other PFASs determined, it is known to accumulate in the lungs. Thus, given the immunotoxicity of the PFASs, exposure to these persistent industrial chemicals may contribute to the severity of COVID-19.

“What we are seeing in recent studies is that PFAS are particularly toxic during early development—that is, prenatally and in early childhood,” explains Grandjean. “The immune system and other organ systems are generating their full functional capacities during this time, and the PFASs negatively affect the programming. That leads to poorer responses to infections and vaccinations, a greater risk of obesity and diabetes, and other ailments.

“Our experience tells us that seeing such disease patterns in childhood will likely also continue into adulthood,” Grandjean continues. “At this point, my response is somewhat hypothetical, in the absence of longterm studies, but it is based on solid studies. I would recommend preventing PFAS exposures to the greatest possible extent and not await more definite documentation, because that will take a very long time.”

What’s In the Water? 

In 1990, Newburgh was the site of a large-scale PFAS spill. According to the Newburgh Clean Water Project, the nearby Stewart Air National Guard Base accidentally spilled 4,000 gallons of liquid firefighting foam, contaminating the groundwater in the surrounding area. The severity of the spill was only fully acknowledged by local government in 2016, when Newburgh’s then city manager declared a state of emergency and ordered that the water supply be switched from the historic reservoir of Lake Washington to the Catskills Aqueduct.

“By that time, our residents had been drinking contaminated water for decades,” says Hollo.

(Multiple requests for comment to the 105th Airlift Wing, the Air National Guard unit stationed at Stewart, went unanswered.)

Credit: US Air Force Sgt. Lee C. Guagenti
New York Air National Guard firefighters practice emergency fire management techniques using firefighting foam at Stewart Air National Guard Base on December 3, 2004.

Today, Newburgh ranks among the parts of New York worst hit by the pandemic. Since November 19, New York State has identified the City of Newburgh as part of a “microcluster zone,” where the rates of positive COVID-19 tests and numbers of daily cases have been rising. Newburgh has also led Orange County in the number of total cases: 2,483 as of December 22, according to the Orange County Health Department.

Due to Newburgh residents’ prolonged exposure to PFAS, environmental justice advocates like Hollo fear that they and their neighbors will not only suffer disproportionately from the effects of COVID-19, but face further difficulties in being properly vaccinated. Hollo points to an earlier study, also conducted by Grandjean, which found that PFAS exposure reduces the effectiveness of routine immunizations, such as the tetanus and diphtheria vaccines.

“Because PFAS affects the immune system, studies are showing that people are more likely to develop a severe case of the disease,” says Hollo. “Even worse, recent research shows that people from affected communities have a weaker response to the vaccines protecting against COVID and may need higher doses for the vaccine to be effective.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the issue of PFAS in Newburgh in other ways, too. According to the City of Newburgh, the local PFAS exposure assessment conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has been postponed, further slowing an institutional response which environmentalists like those with Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the Hudson River, already find lacking.

“The more we learn about PFAS, the more we see that even at extraordinarily low levels of exposure, they can present health risks,” says Dan Shapley, director of Riverkeeper’s water quality program. “While we saw significant steps taken this year to better protect people, there’s more we need to do, in the Hudson Valley and nationwide.”

Hollo also predicts that the PFAS remediation process in Newburgh will “take years of determined action to see results.” She explains that the filtration system set up to treat runoff from the Stewart Air National Guard Base, which costs a million dollars a year, has proved itself inadequate to cope with the amount of local rainfall. A larger, inevitably more expensive system is necessary. In the meantime, Newburgh is forced to pay for water from the Catskill Aqueduct. 

The costs of a spill from a generation ago just keep adding up, which to Hollo suggests that the calculus behind the industrial production of chemicals like PFAS needs to change.

“Companies should have to prove their products are safe and fill a public need,” says Hollo. “They should no longer be allowed to unleash these chemical compounds which have permanent implications for public health for their private profit. They make the money, and the public pays for the clean up—both in terms of health and financially.”