Perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, have been used for decades. This class of chemicals has both industrial and consumer uses, including in fast food wrappers, pizza boxes and stain-resistant clothing. In a study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers looked at children and found that higher levels of PFCs were associated with lower antibody response to routine immunizations, including diphtheria and tetanus.
Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health led the team that looked at more than 600 children. Researchers looked at how children responded to vaccines, because the antibodies produced in response to vaccination can be easily measured and are a marker for immune system function. Researchers also quantified PFC levels. "What we saw was that the children did not quite react the way we wanted them to to the vaccines," he said in an interview. "The higher the exposure to the PFCs, the lower the antibody reaction in the blood."
Grandjean and his team looked at children on the Faroe Islands, located in the Norwegian Sea north of Scotland. Previous research has already demonstrated that American children have similar or higher PFC levels than the Faroese children. PFCs have been used for decades, but Grandjean believes this is the first study to look at immune effects in children. While the study found an association between PFCs and reduced effectiveness of some vaccines, it does not prove PFCs are the definitive cause.
Olga Naidenko, Ph.D. is a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit advocacy organization, where she focuses on health effects of chemical pollution. "It's certainly sound research," she said. "It's groundbreaking because it shows the risks to children's health." She called it a "reasonable hypothesis" that a similar study in the U.S. would find similar effects.
Grandjean says PFCs are so ubiquitous in the environment, "you can find them in polar bears in high concentrations."
In 2008, the California legislature voted to ban certain PFCs from being used in many kinds of food packaging, including pizza boxes and fast-food sandwich wrappers. But Governor Schwarzenegger later vetoed the bill. Manufacturers are voluntarily phasing out one variety of PFC by 2015. In the meantime, other classes of PFCs are still widely used.
As for today's study, Grandjean is troubled. "This is really something that is upsetting in many ways, in particular because we're quite aware the pollution can cause health effects of various kinds, we just have not been paying attention to the immune system," Grandjean said. "We think we're looking at the tip of an iceberg. We're examining these kids again right now and we will conduct further studies and hope we can inspire our colleagues to look at this too."