Lincoln County Public Health Nurse: Understanding vaccine ingredients

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It is part of our human curiosity to inspect and question what we donít understand. Only recently in our culture are people beginning to look more closely at the ingredients in the foods we eat, whether itís organic or non-GMO. So it is very natural and healthy for people to ask questions about what is in their vaccines.

As your county health nurse, this is one of the most common concerns parents discuss with me prior to their childís immunizations and as a new mom myself, I understand! We want to do what is best for our childrenís health. I firmly believe that it is good for patients to ask questions of their doctors and medical professionals, it is even more critical that they understand the evidenced based answers to be able to make educated decisions.

That is what we are going to discuss today: just what exactly is in our vaccines and why?

According to information from the Childrenís Hospital of Philadelphia Research Center, National Institutes of Health, the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Academy of Pediatrics here is the why and how about vaccine ingredients.


Aluminum is used in vaccines as an adjuvant. Adjuvants enhance the immune response by allowing for lesser quantities of active ingredients and, in some cases, fewer doses. Essentially, they make our vaccines stronger without us having to use more viruses or bacteria to illicit the same immune response. Aluminum adjuvants have been used in vaccines since the 1930s.

What we need to understand is aluminum is a natural metal that is present in our environment; the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the foods we eat all contain aluminum. However, the amount present in vaccines is miniscule. Look at it this way,

In the first six months of life, babies receive about 4mg of aluminum in the recommended vaccinations. However, during the same period they will ingest about 10mg of aluminum if they are breastfed, 40mg if they are fed infant formula, and up to 120mg if they are fed soy-based infant formula. It is important to know that aluminum whether injected or ingested is excreted the same and in these small amounts, does not come close to toxic levels, even after years of low exposure.


Thimerosal, an ethyl-mercury, was once used in vaccines as a preservative to prevent accidental bacterial contamination of vaccines during manufacturing and administration. This was done because multi-dose vials where common and nurses were continuously accessing vaccine fluid, potentially introducing bacteria. Thimerosal was effective in preventing this contamination and ensuring solution sterility. However, by 1999, Thimerosal was removed as an ingredient in all vaccines except for multi-dose influenza vaccines. This was done because the use of single-dose vaccines became more readily available and cost effective for clinicians. No evidence to this day exists that suggest thimerosal was ever harmful. Ethyl-mercury does not build up in tissues and is completely excreted from the body unlike itís cousin, methyl-mercury, which is toxic and found in glass thermometers and seafood. Look at it this way, you are ingesting more harmful mercury in a tuna sandwich then you are in the vaccines that previously contain Thimerosal.


We associate this ingredient with the process of preserving dead tissues and so it may sound a little creepy that it is in our vaccines but let me explain. Formaldehyde is used during the manufacturing of some vaccines to inactivate viruses or bacterial toxins to ensure our vaccines donít make us sick with the antigens we use to illicit immunity. While most of the formaldehyde in vaccine production is burned off, trace amounts do remain. But did you know that formaldehyde is a by-product of protein and DNA synthesis? Therefore, it is naturally found in our bloodstream. This commonly occurring concentration made by our own cellular replications, produces 10x more formaldehyde than what is ever found in vaccines.

Did you know that there are also preservatives and stabilizers in the prescription medications we take, our daily multi-vitamins, and the antibiotics that help fight our infections? These ingredients are necessary and nothing to be feared because they are used with purpose and are highly regulated and monitored for their safety and effectiveness.

Too much of anything can be harmful like Tylenol for example, which has one of the narrowest ranges of therapeutic effectiveness to toxic poisoning, or lithium for example which we use as a highly effective mood stabilizer for certain mental health disorders and is also found in battery acid. It is important that we use a little perspective when it comes to quantifying the helpful or harmful amounts of the ingredients in our lives.

Essentially, the ingredients we put into our vaccines have a purpose. These important components make our vaccines weak enough so they donít make us sick yet strong enough to protect us. It may sound like a dangerous cocktail but is, in fact, a delicate balance that is well regulated and monitored by our most prestigious guiding medical agencies around the world.

Riley Black is public health nurse for Lincoln County.

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