What are the similarities and differences between PFOA, Love Canal, and COVID-19?

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Before considering the differences and similarities of these three public health problems, it makes sense to briefly summarize them individually.

The acronym PFOA stands for perfluorooctanoic acid, an industrial surfactant used in a wide variety of globally distributed products, including textiles, floor wax, stain-resistant carpet, and cardboard packaging. Medical researchers have correlated exposure to PFOA with thyroid disease, liver cancer, and several types of cancer affecting the reproductive system. Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found traces of PFOA in the blood serum of nearly all people tested.

Love Canal was a neighborhood in Niagra, New York, which bordered on a landfill composed of 20,000 tons of toxic waste deposited by the Hooker Chemical Company before being sold to the city in 1953. In the 1970s, it became evident that widespread birth defects in the area were caused by chemicals leaching into the backyards and basements of the neighborhood from the deteriorating containers in the landfill. Following protests by local residents and national media exposure, President Carter declared it a federal health emergency, and approved funds for a clean-up of the site, as well as relocating the resident families and reimbursing them for their property.

COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by a virus of zoonotic (mammalian) origin, which was first identified in Wuhan, China in December of 2019 and declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020, due to its rapid global spread. The disease is spread by respiratory droplets. The main symptoms of infection include fever, a dry cough, and shortness of breath. Approximately half of those infected display only mild symptoms or remain asymptomatic, which accelerates the transmissibility of the virus. Roughly 4% of those infected require acute care, and the case fatality rate (CFR) is estimated at 1-1.5%. Those age 60 or older are at greatest risk for mortality due to reduced immunity and greater likelihood of having comorbidities (underlying conditions).

Observing the successful effort to suppress COVID-19 in several Asian countries, a number of European nations declared a national emergency, closed their borders, and called for a national self-quarantine of their citizens in an effort to contain the disease as the pandemic grew rapidly in the early months of 2020. The United States declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency on March 13, 2020, but did not order a national self-quarantine, although the governors of several states did take that measure.

In terms of similarities, the incident at Love Canal and the ongoing danger from PFOA represent environmental threats. Also, in both, the diseases they cause usually develop long after exposure to the source, making them more difficult to identify. PFOA and COVID-19 are alike in the global nature of their penetration. COVID-19 is different from the others in that those infected with the disease may die within a few weeks. Love Canal is different in that it no longer poses a threat. PFOA is different in that its ability to cause disease never fades, since it's completely resistant to environmental degradation.

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