Aluminum and vaccines, it’s time to clear up the pseudoscience

The moving goalposts of the anti-vaccine arguments can be annoying. First, it was mercury (no mercury in vaccines). Today, it’s aluminum and vaccines. What next, the water in vaccines causes something because of reasons?

There is overwhelming and solid evidence that the tiny levels of aluminum in some vaccines are biologically irrelevant. Of course, the anti-vaccine religion is rarely convinced by science, because of only their beliefs matter.

The anti-vaxxers have a preconceived conclusion that vaccines are dangerous –  aluminum and vaccines cause it. Then they find every bit of “evidence” to support that conclusion, irrespective of the mountain of evidence that says they are wrong.

aluminum and vaccines
The beer can is not in vaccines. Photo by Zach Meaney on Unsplash.

Why is there aluminum in vaccines?

This is actually an excellent question that needs a good scientific answer.

Basically, aluminum, in the form of aluminum hydroxide, acts as an adjuvant – a chemical that enhances the immune response to the antigens in vaccines. Because this isn’t always clear, generally only inactivated vaccines, where the bacteria or viruses are dead, use aluminum adjuvants. 

Live, attenuated vaccines, in which the virus or bacteria are weakened and less virulent, produce much better anti-body responses. They usually do not contain adjuvants of any type.

Adjuvants are employed to reduce the quantity and doses of vaccines necessary to induce an appropriate immune response, which should be a good thing for the anti-vaxxers.

According to Vaxopedia:

Aluminum is used in vaccines that protect kids against several vaccine-preventable diseases, including diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTaP and Tdap), Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), hepatitis B, hepatitis A, HPV, and pneumococcal disease (Prevnar).

I think that the reason aluminum in vaccines became an issue results from an oft-repeated myth that somehow aluminum is linked to a few neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Like many myths pushed by people, it arises from poorly done scientific studies, but the more powerful scientific evidence doesn’t support these beliefs.

But aluminum and vaccines must be dangerous!

Let’s look at the math with respect to aluminum in vaccines. We must start with the fact that aluminum is the third most common element on this planet, after oxygen and silicon. It is so ubiquitous that it’s nearly impossible to avoid it, short of living in a certified aluminum-free bubble.

The amount of aluminum in vaccines varies from 0.125 mg to 1.5 mg per dose. Because many of you prefer the barbarian scale, 1 mg = one-thousandth of a gram = 0.00035 ounces – in other words, it would be almost impossible to visualize that amount of aluminum. For example, a beer can weighs about 14.9 g, which means that 1 mg would be a tiny, almost invisible piece of that beer can. And remember, aluminum hydroxide is the adjuvant NOT a piece of a beer can.

Importantly, infants receive around 4.4 mg of aluminum during their first six months of vaccinations. Now, this is where “the dose makes the poison,” a key concept in the understanding of toxicity. For example, water, a chemical that we need every single day of our lives to live, can be poisonous at a high enough dose.

But dose alone does not tell the full story. I don’t get this belief that human physiology is so pathetic, that it’s a miracle that we survive after a few days on earth. Actually, after a few billion years of evolution, most organisms have incredibly robust methods to deal with anything that may harm it. Aluminum hydroxide is quickly eliminated from the body, generally via the kidneys that love to filter out issues.

But how does this compare to real-world situations especially since aluminum is such a common element in the real world? Breastfed infants ingest about 7 mg of aluminum during their first six months. Formula-fed infants ingest about 38 mg. Infants that consume soy formula ingest almost 117 mg of aluminum. In other words, infants get nearly 2-30X more aluminum from food than from vaccines.

In addition, the air itself has lots of aluminum. In a city, the air contains 0.4 – 8.0 µg (micrograms, or 0.001 mg) of aluminum per cubic meter of air. A baby inhales about 7.2 cubic meters of air every day, which means that they’re inhaling from 2.9 to 57.6 µg of aluminum every day. Thus, a baby may get from 1.1 to 10.5 mg aluminum just from breathing during their first six months of life, right around what you would expect from vaccines during that period of time.

But let’s remember the most important point – we don’t have any evidence, despite looking really hard, that vaccines are linked to any neurodegenerative conditions that have been presumably caused by aluminum. The anti-vaccine religion relies upon anecdotes, overrated VAERS dumpster diving, and pre-ordained beliefs to make false claims that vaccines are related to something, anything.

Also not in vaccines. Photo by Leighann Renee on Unsplash.

But injecting aluminum is more dangerous than consuming it

The anti-vaccine forces love to push their narrative about aluminum and vaccines by saying that “injected” aluminum is somehow different than ingested aluminum. You can assume that’s just a myth invented by the anti-vaccine squad to try to scare parents about vaccines. 

Aluminum (almost always in a salt form like the aluminum hydroxide adjuvant)  that you ingest are mostly excreted before they get to enter the bloodstream. In healthy individuals, less than 0.3% of aluminum that you eat is absorbed via the GI tract and the kidneys effectively eliminate aluminum from the body. So, it may appear that injected “aluminum” is different than ingested. But, let’s keep going.

Intravenous infusion of products containing aluminum (for example, parenteral nutrition, which is used to provide nutrition to patients who may not be able to consume or digest food) or renal dysfunction are the only real scenarios where aluminum has the potential to accumulate.

Once aluminum is in the bloodstream, it is processed similarly regardless of the source – whether from a vaccine injection, intravenous infusion, or ingestion. It just depends on the amount received and if the kidneys can keep up.

Continuous infusion, such as parenteral nutrition, delivered directly into the bloodstream, is much more critical consideration than the minuscule amount of aluminum hydroxide in a 0.5 ml vaccine injected into the muscle.

On the other hand, most of the injected aluminum from vaccines will eventually enter the bloodstream, but it is not bioavailable. Bioavailability is the scientific principle of pharmacokinetics which describes how much of a substance is absorbed by cells to have some biological effect.

Aluminum hydroxide has low bioavailability because a very tiny percentage of it will be “dissolved” in the blood – most of it is attached to what is called “carrier proteins.” Approximately 89 percent of this aluminum is processed by binding to a protein called transferrin, and the rest is bound to citrate.

Here is the most important point – the majority of the bound aluminum, which cannot enter any cell in the body, will be processed and eliminated through the kidneys (along with a small amount through bile and feces).  Around 0.5% of the less than 1 mg of aluminum hydroxide enters cells.  

Ingested and inhaled aluminum is treated exactly the same way as injected aluminum by the body. That’s science, and saying anything otherwise is just ridiculous.

Why did aluminum in vaccines become a thing?

Let’s go back to the moving goalposts – ever since the discredited ex-doctor Andrew Wakefield pushed the lie that vaccines cause autism – it doesn’t. Of course, taking that lead from Wakefield, American anti-vaxxers put the blame for autism on thimerosal (or thiomersal for those who speak the Queen’s English). Until recently, it was used in vaccines as a preservative to reduce dangerous bacterial growth in multi-use vials.

Of course, there is no link between thiomersal and autism (or any other neurodegenerative disorder). Relying upon false equivalence, the anti-vaxxers try to make thiomersal equal to dangerous mercury, failing to comprehend basic chemistry and toxicology. Despite the utter lack of evidence that thimerosal was linked to anything but preventing microbial growth in vials of vaccines, the pharmaceutical industry moved to sterile, single-use, pre-filled syringes for all vaccines but some adult flu vials. Single-use, pre-filled syringes are, as you might expect, much more expensive per dose than vials.

Although thimerosal and mercury are still a thing with some anti-vaxxers, they have generally moved on to the aluminum bogeyman. If you watch any comments by the usual anti-vaccine suspects, all you will read is aluminum (or aluminium in that Queen’s English again), aluminum, aluminum, and aluminum. It’s tedious.

The prophets for aluminum in vaccines are dangerous dogma include Christopher Shaw, Lucija Tomljenovic, Christopher Exley, James Lyons-Weiler, and a few others. Shaw and Tomljenovic have published articles about aluminum in vaccines in low-ranked journals, some of which have been subsequently retracted.

Despite the lack of evidence that vaccines are related to any neurodegenerative condition, the anti-vaccine religion insists on inventing causes for something that doesn’t exist. It would be laughable if not for the fact that their incessant ranting about aluminum has thrown the world another reason to not vaccinate.

Obligatory cute animal photo. It has nothing to do with vaccines or aluminum. Photo by Alexandru Zdrobău on Unsplash

Aluminum and vaccines – some facts

Aluminum is not a heavy metal. It is ubiquitous in food, water, and air. Avoiding it is nearly impossible. And the amount of aluminum that children get from vaccines is just not that relevant, mostly because we aren’t injecting a beer can of aluminum in them. 

Here are some more facts:

  • Once again, we have found, after looking really hard, that there is no link between vaccines and autism spectrum disorder. The anti-vaxxers are trying to invent some biologically implausible mechanisms to convince us that it “causes” autism, but they’re putting the cart before the horse. We have shown that vaccines are not correlated with autism (or any other neurological, immunological, or physiological disorder), so whining about aluminum is not relevant.
  • Other than some retracted articles or pure opinion pieces written by pseudoscientists, we have no evidence that the aluminum in vaccines becomes magically available and harms any cell. 
  • A small study examined aluminum levels and infant development for vaccinated and unvaccinated children. The researchers employed a powerful and highly accurate method to measure incredibly small amounts of metals in hair and blood. The authors found no correlation between infant blood or hair aluminum concentrations and vaccine history or between blood aluminum and overall developmental status. Let me make it more simple – a powerful analytical tool found no evidence that an infant, after numerous vaccinations in their first six months, showed any signs of an additional burden of aluminum. None.

Summary

We have no evidence that aluminum in vaccines is linked to neurodegenerative disorders. We have no evidence that aluminum is linked, by itself, to anything. We have solid evidence that environmental aluminum is more important than the tiny amounts of aluminum in vaccines.

Now, we have a powerful study that shows that aluminum levels in the blood don’t change with vaccination. And aluminum levels in blood or hair aren’t related to cognitive development.

Aluminum is just another strawman invented by the anti-vaccine religion to scare people. Real science says it’s safe. But you know as well as I do, this won’t stop them.

Citations



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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!