A 13-year-old Faroese boy is being re-tested for allergies with a prick test, having previously been examined aged 5 and 7. (Photo: Pál Weihe)

Everyday chemicals impair effects of vaccines

High concentrations of so-called PFCs in children’s blood reduce the effect of vaccines, a new Faroese/Danish study shows.

Industrial chemicals reduce the effects of your child’s vaccines, according to a study, published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

“Our blood tests revealed that the higher the concentration of PFCs in the children’s blood, the higher the risk they had of reacting insufficiency to certain vaccines," says Pál Weihe, MD, the head of the Department of Occupational Medicine and Public Health at the Faroese Hospital System.

PFCs are everywhere

We’re all exposed to PFCs, even at the foetal stage, when the substances are transferred from mother to child.

Since these chemicals are repellent to both fat and water, they are widely used for impregnating everyday items such as food packaging, rainwear, footwear and upholstery.

Pál Weihe, MD.

“PFCs can be found everywhere, for instance in food packaging materials,” says Weihe. “But we don’t really know how much of it actually comes into contact with the food.”

In addition to the risk of breathing in the substances through dust from proofed clothing or carpets, PFCs also pile up in the food chain. One consequence of this is that marine organisms high in the food chain, e.g. whales and seals, carry these chemicals around on their bodies.

”Obviously, that doesn’t mean we should stop eating fish,” the researcher is keen to point out. “But it could be a good idea to give priority to fish species that are found low in the food chain, which haven’t managed to build up as much PFC.”

PFCs cause a reduction of antibodies

A vaccine activates the body’s immune system, enabling it to rapidly develop antibodies to defend against possible infections of a disease in the future.

Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) have unique properties to make materials stain, oil, and water resistant, and are widely used in diverse applications.

PFCs persist in the environment as persistent organic pollutants, but unlike PCBs, they are not known to degrade by any natural processes.

Weihe and his colleagues set out to study whether PFC exposure is associated with antibody response to routine childhood vaccinations. They tested blood samples from 656 Faroese children, aged 5 and 7, to determine the content of antibodies against tetanus and diphtheria toxoids.

“Children with high PFC-levels in their blood had significantly lower levels of antibodies than they should have, in relation to how often they had been vaccinated,” says the researcher, adding that the 7-year olds were worst off:

“Here, we found that a doubling in PFC exposure, measured in the blood when they were 5 years old, led to a halving in the amount of antibodies.”

PFCs dull the immune system

These chemicals dull the immune system, and there is a possible tendency that this applies to other vaccines than the ones Weihe and his colleagues studied.

Minimising PFC exposure

Pál Weihe recommends that people ask for rainwear or carpets that haven’t been impregnated when they go shopping.

In case you do have impregnated carpets and furniture at home, the amounts of PFC-contaminated dust could be reduced with frequent vacuuming.

“What worries us is that this might hold true in general,” he says.

Perhaps a high concentration of these substances means that the immune system might also be too weak to react to other vaccines or to fight off other infectious diseases. The study indicates that we shouldn’t be too optimistic about these vaccines.

It also highlights the importance of vaccinating children:

“In order for vaccines to function as they should on a community level, the majority of all children must be resistant. Otherwise we could see epidemics break out because there are too many unprotected children in the community.”

Increased control of PFC exposure

Pál Weihe hopes the new findings will lead to an increased control of PFC exposure in the future, and that scientists will come up with alternative substances that have the same useful features as PFC, but without the negative ones.

“This is also a serious reminder that we ought to test our industrial chemicals more thoroughly,” concludes Weihe.

Translated by: Dann Vinther

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