Aluminum is everywhere. It is the third most common element on earth and can be found in the foods we eat, the air that we breathe and in our water. It is used in a number of common products, including many medicines. Small amounts of aluminum salt are added to certain vaccines as an adjuvant. An adjuvant enhances the vaccine’s protective immune response.
Not all vaccines contain aluminum, since an adjuvant may not be needed.
Vaccines that do not have aluminum include:
- polio (IVP)
- measles, mumps and rubella (MMR)
- chickenpox (varicella)
- meningococcal conjugate (MCV4 for teens and pre-teens)
The US-licensed vaccines for children that contain aluminum adjuvants are: DTP, DTaP, some HiB, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis A and HPV.
All infants are exposed to aluminum in the environment. Breast milk, for example, contains approximately 40 micrograms (mcg) of aluminum per liter, and infant formulas contain an average of approximately 225 mcg of aluminum per liter. Among other factors, the toxicity of aluminum is dependent upon the amount and duration of exposure, how it enters the body, and the individual’s health (kidney function, especially).
Many parents are concerned that aluminum being injected via a vaccination is much more dangerous than the aluminum being ingested by mouth. But small amounts of ingested aluminum are also absorbed by the bloodstream, such as the aluminum found in breast milk.
Confusion around aluminum as a vaccine adjunct grew when vaccine critics began stressing that the FDA established much lower exposure limits for aluminum-contaminated products that are used to treat premature infants and others with poor renal function. That created more confusion than concern about aluminum adjuvants used in vaccines. But, premature infants’ immature kidneys don’t excrete aluminum well. Unfortunately, these tiny patients must receive prolonged intravenous treatments with nutritional solutions and medications that are prone to significant aluminum contamination. People with kidney failure have developed serious neurological effects from aluminum accumulation, but only after exposure to high levels of aluminum over a period of many years during dialysis.
On the other hand, vaccines with aluminum are given to healthy infants with functional kidneys that readily excrete aluminum; they are administered under the skin or into the muscle, resulting in a delayed and gradual release of aluminum into the bloodstream; and, aluminum exposure from vaccination is periodic rather than prolonged.
While it is true that the body excretes almost all ingested aluminum (typically absorbing less than 1%) and that virtually all injected aluminum in vaccines eventually makes its way into the bloodstream, the authors of a 2011 FDA study applied updated parameters to a 2002 study by Keith and Chou and concluded: “The body burden of aluminum from a combination of vaccines and diet throughout an infant’s first year of life is significantly less than the corresponding safe body burden of aluminum, based on the minimal risk levels established by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.”
Avoiding aluminum exposure would be almost impossible since aluminum is so common in our natural environment. You should be concerned about your child’s aluminum exposure if they 1) have poor kidney function, and or 2) are exposed to very large quantities of aluminum for months or years. Since high exposure to aluminum is the result of occupational exposure (usually workers who work in dusty environments and breathe in aluminum dusts or fumes), you most likely will not need to worry about high environmental exposure.
Serious adverse effects attributable to the aluminum adjuvants are rare, but local reactions such as redness, swelling or tenderness at the injection site are not uncommon. Jefferson, et al, in a 2004 review of the evidence of adverse events after the DTP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) which contains aluminum, found no evidence that aluminum salts cause any serious or long-lasting adverse events.
The Vaccine Education Center’s aluminum fact sheet (PDF)
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s aluminum page provides information about blood levels of aluminum after an injection
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry aluminum page