Startling news from the scientific community may have some parents re-thinking the contents of—and chemicals in—their homes. TIME.com reports that exposure to common household chemicals may lower children’s responses to vaccines. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), commonly used in everything from furniture and stain-resistant carpeting to microwave popcorn bags and non-stick coatings in cookware, may negatively impact children’s responsiveness to the DTaP vaccine, which protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis.
Dr. Philippe Grandjean, chair of environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark, and his colleagues studied a group of nearly 600 children born between 1999 and 2001 in the Faroe Islands in the north Atlantic, all of whom had received the DTaP vaccine at 3 months and then a booster at 5 years of age. The participants’ antibodies to diphtheria and tetanus were tested at age 5, just before receiving the booster, and then again two years later. Their blood was also tested for PFCs. Researchers chose this particular population because most residents rely on the sea to survive, and recent studies have recorded rising amounts of PFCs in the area’s drinking water and fish.
Researchers found that kids with higher levels of PFCs in their blood had a lower immune response; those whose PFC levels were twice as high had just half the amount of antibodies to diphtheria and tetanus as other children who tested lower for PFCs. Ultimately, some of the children had such low levels of antibodies that they were no longer protected against these diseases.
These results are unsettling for parents, as well as researchers. Dr. Grandjean says, “We were kind of shocked when we saw those numbers. This is the first study to say that by [exposing children to these chemicals], we are screwing up a major aspect of disease prevention in our society. I’ve been in the field for quite a while, and this is a very strong signal.” Also an adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, Grandjean understands the implications of excessive use of chemicals in our everyday products, but avoiding these chemicals can be difficult, if not impossible, given their ubiquity. “When we see results like this, it’s clear we haven’t done our job well enough,” he says. “I think the next generation deserves better from us.”
While researchers acknowledge that the study was small and the results need to be confirmed, it’s worth noting that despite the participants’ high consumption of seafood (and resultant high levels of PFCs), their levels were similar to those seen in kids in the U.S., who are exposed to PFcs through common household dust or water pollution.
Though this situation seems bleak, concerned parents of children who may have been exposed to enough PFCs to affect their immune system can be re-vaccinated, says Grandjean.
Have you taken any precautions to use chemical-free or all-natural products in your family? If not, would you now consider a change in your household purchases?