Trying to have a reasonable discussion with the anti-vaccine religion is usually very difficult. To these militants, scientific evidence is unimportant – well, unless it’s a cherry-picked article from an obscure, predatory journal that has been retracted. Part of the problem is the moving goalposts of the anti-vaccine arguments. First, it was mercury (no mercury in vaccines). Today, the argument is that aluminum in vaccines is dangerous. What next, the water in vaccines causes something because of reasons?
A new paper published recently provides solid evidence that the tiny amount of aluminum in vaccines is biologically irrelevant. Not that a peer-reviewed paper in a top journal would convince most anti-vaccine zealots, since they have a pre-conceived conclusion, and only accept evidence that supports their beliefs. By the way, that’s the very definition of pseudoscience.
Why is there aluminum in vaccines?
This is actually an excellent question that needs a good scientific answer.
Basically, aluminum vaccines, in the form of aluminum hydroxide, acts as an adjuvant – a chemical that enhances the immune response of vaccines. Not all vaccines use aluminum hydroxide as an adjuvant, and not all vaccines require adjuvants. 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.
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 is dangerous to my baby!
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. 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. Soy formula fed infants ingest almost 117 mg of aluminum. In other words, infants get nearly 2-30X more aluminum from just food than from vaccines.
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.
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 (see Note 1). 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 thiomersal and mercury are a 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, aluminium, aluminum, and aluminium. 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.
New article about aluminum in vaccines
In an article, published in Academic Pediatrics, a moderate impact factor peer-reviewed specialty journal, researchers examined aluminum levels compared to infant development for vaccinated and unvaccinated children.
The study followed 85 children aged 9 to 13 months, excluding those who received aluminum-containing pharmaceuticals, were evaluated for blood and hair aluminum levels, vaccination history, and cognitive, language and motor development scores. The authors measured aluminum levels using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry, a powerful and highly accurate method to measure incredibly small amounts of metals, like aluminum. It can measure aluminum down to 1 in one quadrillion parts, or 1 in 1015.
Let’s keep this simple. 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 no signs of an additional burden of aluminum. None.
In addition, like has been shown numerous times, they found no difference in blood and hair (see Note 2) aluminum irrespective of the number of vaccines. It’s possible that there is simply a background level of aluminum in all children (and presumably adults), because of the ubiquitousness of aluminum in the environment.
The authors put it succinctly:
Neither B-Al (blood aluminum) nor H-Al (hair aluminum) was correlated with age, suggesting that biomarker levels were constant among this cross-section of infants aged 9 to 13 months. No correlation was found between H-Al or B-Al concentrations and the infant’s history of receipt of aluminum-containing immunizations, either the estimated cumulative aluminum load from previous immunizations or that from vaccines received on the date of testing. These results are similar to those reported by investigators who studied 15 premature infants before and after they received 1200 μg aluminum in their 2-month-old immunizations and reported no changes in blood or urine aluminum levels.
Although this was a small study in a one community health center, it provides us with powerful evidence that aluminum in vaccines has no influence on either physiological concentrations of the metal or neurodevelopmental differences in children. Not only do we lack any causation from aluminum, we can’t even find a correlation.
And one more thing, because it seems to matter to the anti-vaccine religion. This study was supported by the Environmental Protection Agency (before the anti-environment forces took over) and the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) sponsored this study. No Merck, no Big Pharma, just unbiased Federal agencies.
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.
- I’m sure there’s a good reason, but thimerosal is the American spelling for the chemical. However, in British-speaking countries (and other European countries, I believe), it’s called thiomersal. I have used both terms, preferring thiomersal, but they are the exact same chemical.
- Using hair to test for aluminum is an important method of determining the long-term levels of aluminum burden. Of course, anti-vaxxers will claim that aluminum in vaccines has some magical ability to go to the brain and hide from the analysis. I suppose that they’d only be convinced if we took a brain sample to analyze aluminum in brain cells – never going to happen unless someone wants us sampling brain tissues from children.
- Karwowski MP, Stamoulis C, Wenren LM, Faboyede GM, Quinn N, Gura KM, Bellinger DC, Woolf AD. Blood and Hair Aluminum Levels, Vaccine History, and Early Infant Development: A Cross-Sectional Study. Acad Pediatr. 2018 Mar;18(2):161-165. doi: 10.1016/j.acap.2017.09.003. Epub 2017 Sep 14. PubMed PMID: 28919482.
- Lidsky TI. Is the Aluminum Hypothesis dead? J Occup Environ Med. 2014 May;56(5 Suppl):S73-9. doi: 10.1097/JOM.0000000000000063. Review. PubMed PMID: 24806729; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4131942.
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