We do everything possible to safeguard our children from danger and disease. That’s why immunisations are so important. The routine jabs of childhood are meant to stop children falling prey to illnesses that could be debilitating or even life-threatening. So we make sure they receive the vaccinations for diphtheria, tetanus and all the rest. But what if they’re not working?
The problem lies not with the jabs themselves, but something far more insidious – pollution. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls as they’re properly known, were once used in many industries, and found especially in plastics and flame retardants. However, 20 years ago they were banned because of their pollutant effects. Although no longer in use, PCBs are still leaking into the environment from a number of sources – it could be something as simple as old electrical equipment or from hazard waste sites and landfills.
PCBs don’t break down easily. That means some of them end up in the fat of animals and fish, which are then eaten by humans. PCBs have been linked to cancer, birth defects, fertility problems and learning difficulties, as well as having very negative effects on the human immune and nervous systems.
How It Affects Your Children
In tests, scientists have determined that children exposed to PCBs might not have the kind of immunity they should be receiving from immunisations. A study of adults and children in the Faroe Isles, whose diet meant they were exposed to high levels of PCBs, found that the greater the exposure, the less their immune systems responded to the vaccines.
The vaccines, which generally contain a very weak form of the disease, work by causing the body to produce antibodies that will fight the disease. Children who had been exposed to high levels of PCBs were found to be producing lower amounts of antibodies, so the vaccine was proving to be less effective.
This doesn’t mean that the vaccines didn’t work – there were still enough antibodies produced – but in some cases the levels of antibodies were very low. One possibility from this is that children exposed to high levels of PCBs might be more susceptible in general to infections, as their immune systems aren’t as strong.
What You Can Do About It
For a start, think about what you might be passing on to your children, both unborn and newborn. Currently the Food Standards Agency suggests that pregnant and breastfeeding women eat one or two portions of oily fish, such as salmon, a week, for the benefits of Omega-3.
However, it’s also been said that fish might well be contaminated by PCBs in the environment. If you eat fish which contains PCBs, you could be passing them on in the womb or through breast milk.
At present, the problem seems to be contained within those whose diets has large amounts of PCBs (in the Faroes they eat whale blubber, which can contain those high levels), and the studies have been focused there. However, it’s yet to be determined what really constitutes an ‘acceptable’ level of PCBs, or if such a level exists.
As with many other things, it constitutes a warning to be aware of what you put in your own body, as well as those of your children. The vaccines are still effective, and there’s no indication that will change, but we may inadvertently be putting our children more at risk.