Background: Developmental exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) has been implicated as a possible cause of deficient immune function in children. This study was designed to assess whether prenatal and postnatal exposure to PCBs impacts on antibody response to childhood immunizations.
Methods and findings: Two birth cohorts were formed in the Faroe Islands, where exposures vary widely, because traditional diets may include whale blubber contaminated with PCBs. Prenatal exposure was determined from maternal concentrations of PCBs in pregnancy serum and milk. Following routine childhood vaccinations against tetanus and diphtheria, 119 children were examined at 18 mo and 129 children at 7 y of age, and their serum samples were analyzed for tetanus and diphtheria toxoid antibodies and for PCBs. The antibody response to diphtheria toxoid decreased at age 18 mo by 24.4% (95% confidence interval [CI], 1.63-41.9; p = 0.04) for each doubling of the cumulative PCB exposure at the time of examination. The diphtheria response was lower at age 7 y and was not associated with the exposure. However, the tetanus toxoid antibody response was affected mainly at age 7 y, decreasing by 16.5% (95% CI, 1.51-29.3; p = 0.03) for each doubling of the prenatal exposure. Structural equation analysis showed that the early postnatal exposure was the most important predictor of a decreased vaccination response.
Conclusions: Increased perinatal exposure to PCBs may adversely impact on immune responses to childhood vaccinations. The clinical implications of insufficient antibody production emphasize the need for prevention of immunotoxicant exposures.