Skip to content

Children's Vaccines Health Center

Font Size

Environmental Chemicals May Thwart Kids' Vaccines

Study Suggests Higher Blood Levels of PFCs May Make Immune System Less Responsive to Vaccines
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 24, 2012 -- Routine vaccines may not work as well in children with elevated blood levels of chemicals called PFCs (perfluorinated compounds), according to a new study.

PFCs are widely found in consumer goods such as food packaging, stain-resistant carpeting, and other products.

In the new study, researchers looked at PFC levels in children's blood and their antibody responses, crucial to produce immunity.

As PFCs levels rose, the antibody response declined. "The immune system may not be as responsive as we want it to be," says researcher Philippe Grandjean, MD, DMSc, adjunct professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. "It may become sluggish because of the PFCs."

His study is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and other governmental bodies in the U.S. and in Denmark. One co-author is a civil service employee at Statens Serum Institut, a government-owned vaccine maker in Denmark.

Taking exception to the study is Gilbert Ross, MD, medical director of the American Council on Science and Health, a nonprofit funded by corporations, organizations, and individuals. Ross calls the new research ''absolute junk."

PFCs and Vaccines: Study Details

In recent years, scientists have focused on potential health hazards linked with the chemicals, found in a wide variety of goods as well as in house dust. Some research has linked PFC exposure to lower birth weight and to higher cholesterol, for instance.

Previous studies in animals have found that their immune systems are highly sensitive to a common kind of PFC known as PFOAs (perfluorooctanoic acid), says Grandjean, who is also a professor and chair of environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark, Odense.

Grandjean and his colleagues focused on children's antibody responses to diphtheria and tetanus vaccines.

The vaccines are routinely given to children and teens. Tetanus or lockjaw can cause painful muscles spasms. Diphtheria can lead to breathing problems, heart failure, and paralysis and is potentially fatal.

Grandjean's team studied 656 children born from 1999 to 2001 at National Hospital in the Faroe Islands, northwest of Scotland. They took blood samples from the mothers at week 32 of their pregnancies. They took blood samples from the children at ages 5 and 7.

At the seven-year mark, 464 children were still involved in the study.

The researchers evaluated PFC levels and the levels of antibodies.

The most common PFCs found were PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid)  and PFOA.

The higher the level of PFCs in the mother's blood, the less the child's ability to produce antibodies later, Grandjean found.

"The most distinct effect was found in the 7-year-old children," Grandjean says. If the PFC levels doubled at age 5,  it could triple the risk the vaccine didn't work at age 7, he says.

"A study like this has to be repeated," Grandjean tells WebMD. The study finds a link or association. It does not prove cause and effect.

It is not  a reason to skip routine vaccines, Grandjean tells WebMD. "To avoid getting shots would put kids in an even worse situation."

Today on WebMD

Baby getting vaccinated
Is there a link? Get the facts.
syringes and graph illustration
Get a customized vaccine schedule.
 
baby getting a vaccine
Know the benefits and the risk
nurse holding syringe in front of girl
Should your child have it?
 

What To Know About The HPV Vaccine
Article
24 Kid Illnesses Parents Should Know
Slideshow
 
Nausea and Vomiting Remedies Slideshow
Article
Managing Immunization Schedules For Kids
Video
 

Doctor administering vaccine to toddler
Video
gloved hand holding syringe
Article
 
infant receiving injection
Tool
pills
Quiz
 

WebMD Special Sections