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CBS13 Investigates: 'Forever Chemicals,' COVID And Results From A New At-Home PFAS Test

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) -- Decades of research link so-called "forever chemicals" to a variety of health concerns ranging from cancers and kidney disease to asthma and weight gain. Now, you can add COVID concerns to that list.

Per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are in everything from frying pans to fast food wrappers and raincoats. Emerging research suggests higher levels of these forever chemicals in the body may lead to more severe COVID symptoms — and may reduce the effectiveness of vaccines.

Now, for the first time, a new test is allowing the general public to identify the level of PFAS in their bodies at home.

Nearly everyone has some level of PFAS in their body. The chemicals are used to make products non-stick, stain, water, or grease resistant. But, the strong chemical bonds that make PFAS non-stick, also cause them to stick around.

"They build up in our bodies, they build up in the environment and they also build up in water and wildlife," said Tasha Stoiber, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group.

Decades of research link these chemicals to a variety of health concerns, ranging from cancers and kidney disease to asthma and weight gain - and emerging research indicates they may have an impact on COVID, too.

"Studies have shown that PFAS chemicals are immuno-toxic to humans," Stoiber said.

A recent study linked higher levels of PFAS in the body to more severe COVID symptoms and studies linking the forever chemicals to reduced vaccine efficacy date back a decade.

"Studies have shown that increased levels of PFAS in the blood can result in a decreased antibody response to several different types of vaccines. And we have seen this in studies in both children and adults," Stoiber said.

It's believed nearly everyone has some level of PFAS in their body. But, unless you're a part of a study, it has been nearly impossible to test your own levels until now.

EmpowerDX has developed an at-home PFAS test that enables you to identify the levels of forever chemicals in your body with a mail-order finger-stick test.

"This is the first test that's available to the general public," said Andrew Patterson, Technical Director for Eurofins Specialty Services. Eurofins is the support lab for EmpowerDX.

He explained that the test was originally developed for studies on firefighters. The finger prick allowed firefighters to easily test their PFAS levels before and after fighting a fire with PFAS-laden foam. But they've now expanded access to the general public to help people identify their levels of exposure at home.

So, CBS13 decided to put the test to the test. Investigative Reporter Julie Watts tested her blood and her daughter's.

Since the chemicals build up over time, one might expect Watts' PFAS levels would be higher than her daughter's since she's older. However, that wasn't exactly the case.

Watts and her daughter both tested positive for one PFAS chemical that is linked to stain-resistant products. Watts' levels of that chemical were slightly higher. However, her daughter tested positive for another PFAS chemical that Watts did not.

More surprising, the forever chemical that Watts' daughter tested positive for, linked to non-stick cookware, was supposed to have been phased out of consumer products before the 8-year-old was even born.

"This points to the overall issue with this class of chemicals," Stoiber said, adding that they're called "forever chemicals" for a reason.

Watts' daughter may have been exposed through lingering chemicals in the water supply or other contamination. And because kids have less body mass, they can have higher PFAS levels.

"The thing that I worry about the most with children is that your immune system is still developing," Stoiber said.

It's important to note these tests are not diagnostic and your PFAS levels don't directly correlate to a risk of disease. But these tests can allow you to compare your PFAS levels to the national average. You can also compare your before and after results when trying to reduce exposure.

Watts' PFAS levels, and her daughter's, were well below the national average. Notably, the investigative reporter has taken steps over the years to reduce her family's exposure.

"Most people are exposed to PFAS through drinking water and through food," Stoiber said. "Awareness is really key in reducing your exposures."

You can check the levels in your drinking water through the Environmental Working Group's tap water database. EWG suggests reducing exposure by filtering your water. Cutting down on takeout and coated food containers can also help.

This EWG guide provides tips on how to reduce your exposure. EWG has also compiled this list of products from companies that claim they don't intentionally add PFAS.

But while there are steps you can take to reduce exposure, it's currently impossible for most people to eliminate PFAS exposure.

"What's needed in general is stronger regulations from the federal government," Stoiber said.

California has led the way in reducing PFAS with laws restricting chemicals in firefighting foam, cosmetics, children's products, and food packaging. Additional legislation has been introduced this year.

But many of these laws don't take effect right away and experts say federal regulation is needed.

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