A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has found that common environmental toxins, particularly perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) that are found in food packaging, stain-resistant carpets, and nonstick pans, can reduce the extent to which vaccines protect children from diseases including tetanus and diphtheria.
Levels of PFCs found in the Faroe children (who consume high levels of seafood associated with increased PFC exposure), he added, are similar to those found in American children, but it's not known whether the same effect occurs with other vaccinations. "We're not worried about kids coming down with diphtheria or tetanus, which are rare," Grandjean said, "but the chemical might very well be interfering with other immunizations."
There's certainly no reason for parents to panic over the finding, said Dr. Rick Malley, an infectious disease expert at Children's Hospital Boston who wasn't involved with the research. "I would say it's an elegant study and it's provocative, but it's just showing an association, not a cause and effect." The study design, he added, doesn't tell us whether PFCs actually lower the effectiveness of vaccines or whether kids with high PFC levels have something else that's interfering with their immune response.
What's more, other things interfere with immunizations. A 2009 clinical trial published in Lancet found that administering acetaminophen to infants before vaccinations led to fewer fevers and febrile seizures but also reduced the immune response to common vaccines, which has led many pediatricians to stop recommending that parents give a dose of Tylenol to babies before vaccinations.
That said, PFCs could become the next bisphenol A -- a chemical once ubiquitous in baby bottles until studies linked high levels to increased risks of cancer, sexual dysfunction, and heart disease. Now it's hard to find a baby bottle that isn't labeled BPA-free.
Image: Child getting a vaccine, via Shutterstock.