“We don’t want to raise a red flag, per se, but perhaps a yellow flag”: NC State researchers look at PFAS impacts on immune systems

“We don’t want to raise a red flag, per se, but perhaps a yellow flag”: NC State researchers look at PFAS impacts on immune systems
Published: Feb. 17, 2023 at 7:50 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - New studies are further revealing the dangers of forever chemicals in our water. Research from NC State suggests that these chemicals are harmful to our immune system, but now there are questions about the impacts for the average person in the long run.

Previous studies show that exposure to toxic chemicals can suppress the function of B cells, which make antibodies to fight infections.

Researchers at NC State University are now digging deeper to learn more about the impacts on our immune system.

“We observed that two out of the nine PFAs we tested Gen X and PF HSA did suppress the neutrophil function,” Jeff Yoder, a professor at NC State, said. “When we get infected, neutrophils will migrate through your body to the site of the infection. And they can play two important roles. Number one, they can release chemical signals to recruit other immune cells to that site. And number two, they can detect pathogens directly, and then release these harsh chemicals that can directly kill the pathogen.”

Yoder said their findings have left them with more questions than answers from this study.

“We don’t want to raise a red flag, per se, but perhaps a yellow flag, if you will. This study was not a direct study of human health. It was on animal and cell models. And so, there’s only so much interpretation we can do. But what we’re hoping is that these results, we’re going to continue doing work on this, but we’re also hoping that this may help regulatory agencies prioritize these chemicals for further study as well,” Yoder said.

Drake Phelps, a graduate student at NC State, also worked on this study and said there’s no question the water is toxic, but they need more time to look at the long term of PFAS.

“This should further cement in their heads that these compounds are toxic, especially to the immune system and are toxic to the developing immune system,” Phelps said. “I think people should work on is minimizing their exposure to these compounds in any way they can, whether that be filtering their water, avoiding fast food, and staying informed on the issue. I think that’s really some of what some of the great ways that they can avoid their exposure to these toxic chemicals.”

Both Phelps and Yoder said this study was the base for more in-depth studies that will hopefully be done in the future.

“This project really as a starting point, it really raised more questions than it answered. And I want to emphasize that this project was done using zebrafish and a human cell line. And we did very short exposures, we only did four-day exposure, but we did a high level of PFAS concentration. So, it’s hard to translate that directly to human health and human exposure,” Yoder said. “So, one of the big questions is, because we know that humans have been, you know, residents in the Cape Fear River basin have been drinking PFAS for years to decades. And so, our model is four days, and we’re seeing this suppression of this immune response. And so, we don’t know exactly does that. Is this a long-lasting effect? Does a longer exposure make it worse? And now we want to move forward and can we start developing experimental models that will better mimic the human exposure. It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of time, unfortunately, to do these studies. But I think that this work is so important to get a better understanding of how these chemicals are impacting human health.”

“What’s also key to keep in mind is that the people in Wilmington have been exposed to a mixture of these compounds. Up to you know, 250 plus compact PFAS in the Cape Fear River. And in our study, we only studied individual PFAS one at a time, we have not yet done any mixture studies. But that’s certainly something we’ve talked about getting on the books,” Phelps added.