A study released this week suggesting a link between exposure to chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds and an impaired immune system in kids should prompt more research, Minnesota health officials said.
The study in the Journal of the American Medical Association measured the effectiveness of vaccines among children living on the Faroe Islands between Scotland and Iceland. It found that children with elevated levels of perfluorinated compounds — or PFCs — were less likely to have a good immune response to vaccines.
"We think it's an important finding," said Jean Johnson, a Minnesota Department of Health epidemiologist who directs the environmental public health tracking and biomonitoring program.
Johnson said more research will be needed to confirm the results and to assess whether the same link can be found in adults.
"The one thing we would say about it I think is that it is a study done of a population of children on the Faroe Islands. It's not a U.S. population," she said.
The Minnesota Department of Health has been measuring the levels of PFCs found in residents in the Twin Cities east metro area after the chemicals seeped into groundwater from landfills and ended up in people's drinking water. 3M manufactured the chemicals, which are commonly found in nonstick cookware, stain resistant fabrics and food packaging, until 2002.
In December the Department of Health announced that the levels of PFCs found in residents' blood was declining over time. Public and private drinking water supplies in several east metro communities are being filtered to remove the chemicals.
Johnson said the levels of PFCs found in children on the Faroe Islands were comparable to levels in U.S. residents. Adults in the east metro have been found with higher levels of PFCs, she said, but children have not been part of the monitoring program.
"If it's confirmed in more research, then it certainly has implications for children's health, Johnson said of the study.
Johnson noted that the Health Department isn't a research institution and wouldn't be in a position to do the follow up, but she expects the finding will lead to more studies.
One other study released this week also measured the levels of PFCs in children. The study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that children living near a plant in West Virginia that manufactured the chemicals had much higher concentrations of PFCs than their mothers. The PFC levels declined as the children aged, according to the study.
"It raises some interesting questions about the changes with age, because they did find levels to be higher in the children," Johnson said. "It does suggest that for younger children, there's something different in their sources of exposure or perhaps in their metabolism than adults."
Some residents in the east metro have called for more in depth health studies, and many of them have been frustrated over the uncertainty about whether PFC exposure causes harm.
"I do want to see some type of evidence. Something in black and white that definitely gives you the information of whether or not it's a health hazard," said Scott Deutsch, of Lake Elmo.
Deutsch's well was found to be contaminated and was sealed up. He is now has access to a public drinking water supply that is filtered for PFCs.
Although he doesn't have children living at home, Deutsch said he'd be interested to know how PFC exposure in the east metro has affected children, not just adults.
Johnson said parents in the area concerned about their children's exposure to PFCs should consult with a pediatrician.