Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Robert De Niro just had a press conference to push their anti-vaccine nonsense on the public. This time, they’re offering US$100,000 to anyone who can show that mercury in vaccines are safe. Well, they can write me the check today, since there is NO mercury (really, there never was) in vaccines, so based on their lame accusations, it’s safe.
I’m starting to think that the anti-vaccine forces think that the wind is blowing in their direction. This so-called press conference was held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, an important venue for announcements. The National Press Club ought to be embarrassed – how could a prestigious institution allow such junk “news” at their site. But that’s a story for another day.
Kennedy and De Niro – pushing anti-vaccine nonsense
Let me remind you about the participants in this travesty. Let’s start with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has sold out the left by sidling up to Donald Trump with respect to vaccines – Trump, after he’s done selling out the country to the Soviets (errr, Russians), is planning to establish a commission on vaccine safety. Trump may or may not have offered RFK Jr. the chairmanship of the commission. You never know with Trump.
RFK Jr. has a long history of being a vaccine denier (despite his claims that he really isn’t) – he even pushes the myth that the CDC somehow profits mightily from its vaccine patents. But he really pushes this trope about mercury –
In 2005, he published an article titled “Deadly Immunity,” in both Rolling Stone and Salon, alleging that the mercury-based chemical thimerosal, which was once but is no longer used as a preservative in children’s vaccines, causes mercury poisoning and in turn autism. There is no evidence to support this view. The consensus position of the medical community is that thimerosal does not cause mercury poisoning in children, and in any case the symptoms for mercury poisoning and autism are radically different. A comprehensive review by a committee of the Institute of Medicine in 2004, the year before Kennedy’s article, concluded that “the body of epidemiological evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism.”
By the way, RFK Jr.’s article at Salon was quickly retracted, after Salon was forced to publish a series of corrections that disputed most of Kennedy’s claims.
As for Robert De Niro, unless you are closely involved with the anti-vaccine movement, you probably think he’s a famous award-winning actor. Well, he became a mouthpiece for anti-vaccine nonsense pushers when a controversy arose over the fraudumentary Vaxxed, which was being featured at De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival. The fraudumentary was eventually pulled from the schedule because of the controversy. But after it was pulled, De Niro stepped forward to claim:
There’s a lot going on that I still don’t understand, but it makes me question the whole thing, and the whole vaccine issue is a real one. It’s big money. So it did get attention. I was happy about that. And I talked about another movie called Trace Amounts that I saw and spoke about it a lot, that people should see it, and it’s there. Something is there with vaccines, because they’re not tested in some ways the way other medicines are, and they’re just taken for granted and mandated in some states. And people do get sick from it. Not everybody, but certain people are sensitive, like anything, penicillin.
Speaking of Trace Amounts, Dorit Rubinstein Reiss wrote a comprehensive critique of this fraudumentary. The film’s story is best described by Professor Reiss:
The movie, Trace Amounts, opens with the story of Eric Gladen, one of the directors, whose health suddenly and unexplainably deteriorated. Distressed by his very serious symptoms, Mr. Gladen took to the Internet and researched them, finally arriving at the conclusion that he was poisoned by mercury. He also created a timeline and arrived at the conclusion that his symptoms started immediately after he received a tetanus vaccination that contained thimerosal (also known as thiomersal outside of the USA or, generically, ethyl mercury).
A search on the Internet convinced him that thimerosal in vaccines can cause his symptoms. He chose to follow a specific chelation protocol and apparently found a doctor willing to cooperate. His symptoms improved temporarily, and he believed chelation worked.
When his health deteriorated again, his doctor suggested thinking about other sources of exposure to mercury (there is no indication the doctor reconsidered that maybe the diagnosis of mercury poisoning was in error). Gladen concluded the return of his symptoms came from being exposed to mercury fumes from a broken lightbulb. Although further chelation did not seem to work, Mr. Gladen remained convinced that his symptoms are due to mercury poisoning, and he also concluded that his symptoms resemble autism.
So then, mercury.
It’s always about mercury
So, Kennedy and De Niro are pushing their anti-vaccine nonsense based on the element mercury. Unfortunately for their narrative, mercury has not and is not in any vaccines anywhere in the world. In fact, mercury is a nasty element that certainly does have some severe neurological effects, but it’s not relevant to vaccines.
What this anti-vaccine gang tries to sell is that thimerosal (or, if you’re outside of the USA, thiomersal) is equivalent to mercury. This would be true if we completely ignored all that we know about chemistry.
Thiomersal is an anti-bacterial preservative that is used in many medical products (including, at one time, most vaccines). It was used in vaccines to prevent cross contamination of multi-dose vials (they usually had 10 doses). Today, most vaccines are in single-use pre-filled syringes, so preservatives are not used.
Thiomersal, the chemical, contains one mercury atom attached to an ethyl group, or CH2CH3, which generally makes it soluble in water and to have it’s anti-bacterial effect. Thiomersal is an “ethyl mercury” – to consider it “mercury” would be similar to considering table salt, NaCl, a form of poisonous chlorine gas. That ignores basic chemistry.
Generally, thiomersal remains in the ethyl mercury form, and is cleared out of the body within a couple of weeks. Yes, thiomersal is toxic, but it’s important to realize that the dose makes the poison – and the dose of thiomersal in vaccines was so far below the toxic dose, that it’s beyond implausible to think that the dose would have any biological effect, long or short term. And it is not elemental mercury (which would be dangerous).
There is a form of organic mercury that is dangerous – methyl mercury, which is widespread in our environment. If you were to be worried about mercury, the amount in fish you eat is far more dangerous and in higher concentrations than you would find in the form in vaccines. If all childhood vaccines contained thiomersal, and they don’t, it wouldn’t come close to the amount of mercury found in one can of tuna fish.
Maybe you agree that the dose is low, but still think that thiomersal in vaccines causes something, like autism. Well, there is simply no evidence that supports this belief. Again, Professor Reiss looked at the evidence for a link between thiomersal and autism in her review of Trace Amounts:
In addition to trying to dismiss some of the data contradicting its point of view, the misleading picture it makes is compounded by glaring omissions. The movie completely ignores the many other studies from all around the world that examined the link between thimerosal and autism and found none. If we accept that the CDC is engaged in a conspiracy to hide a link between thimerosal and autism, would we say that:
Iceland is part of the conspiracy, since although thimerosal was removed from the vaccines in 1991, ASD rates have continued to increase since then (and administration of influenza vaccines, which may contain thimerosal, is not recommended to children or pregnant women?):
In other words, the scientific evidence, and only evidence matters – not anecdotes, articles in low quality journals, or YouTube videos. And the evidence is overwhelming that thiomersal has no link to autism or other neurological disorders. These are large, well-designed studies that are near the top of the hierarchy of scientific evidence.
Let me sum it up about mercury:
- It is not linked to autism
- Thiomersal is not mercury
- Importantly, except for multi-use vials of some flu vaccines, there is no thiomersal in any vaccine on the market
The anti-vaccine nonsense meter reads very high with this one.
The nonsense press conference
If you are so interested, you can view the full press conference on the World Mercury Project Facebook Page. Make sure you’re wearing your skeptical hat if you are inclined to watch this thing. Here are some highlights:
“On the occasion of our announcement of the World Mercury Project’s $100K challenge, we want to address America’s reporters, journalists, columnists, editors, network anchors, on-air doctors and news division producers….
Despite the cascade of recent science confirming that thimerosal is a potent neurotoxin that damages children’s brains, the American media has fiercely defended the orthodoxy that mercury-based vaccines are safe. We believe that even a meagre effort at homework will expose that contention as unsupported by science. In just the past month, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) review confirmed thimerosal’s profound neurotoxicity and a Yale University study connected vaccines to neurological illnesses including OCD, anorexia and tics…
Journalists, we have discovered—even science and health journalists—don’t always read the science! On the vaccine issues, many of them have let government and industry officials tell them what the science supposedly says. Instead of questioning, digging and investigating, journalists, too often, have taken the easy course of repeating the safety assurances of the pharmaceutical industry and the regulators at CDC’s Immunization Safety Office, which they have good reason to doubt.”
First of all, the CDC has not confirmed thimerosal’s “profound neurotoxicity.” In fact, the CDC states that thiomersal is safe in vaccines. Kennedy is so filled with his own myth-making, he can’t even state a truth.
And as for the “Yale University study,” I’m always skeptical when someone trying to push pseudoscience uses the educational institution as an appeal to authority, let’s take a quick look. It was published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, whose publisher is considered a “predatory publisher,” that is, you have to pay to publish in the journal. Maybe you don’t care about that, but it is indicative of “research” that is so bad that it can’t make it into prestigious journals. In fact, if this study provided us good evidence about risks of vaccines, it would be published in prestigious journals. It’s too important.
I think it’s important to look at this “research” and compare it to the body of work that contradicts it. Cherry picking one study is not real science. If this were a good study, and we’ll get to that, it would need to be added to evidence for and against the safety of vaccines. And right now, this study would be overwhelmed by all of the others that show no link, some of which we’ve described in the previous section of this post.
But those are more meta-level issues with the article.
Lucky for me, the eccentric Orac reviewed this article in detail. Let’s just jump to Orac’s conclusion (though the whole article is a good read):
There are so many dodgy things about this paper that I could continue to go on, but for purposes of a wrap-up, what you need to know is that, no, it doesn’t show that vaccines cause anorexia nervosa or tics, or the other neurological disorders linked to them; that it isn’t even good evidence of a correlation between vaccines and these conditions; that it’s funded by two of the authors and the wife of one of the authors; that one of the authors has a history of writing antivaccine articles for Medical Hypotheses; and, finally, that the other author is chairman of the board of directors for a lyme disease charity that appears to be heavily into chronic lyme disease woo. Basically, it’s bad epidemiology and statistics carried out by mostly non-epidemiologists and non-statisticians. Indeed, it’s so bad that I was surprised not to see someone like Andrew Wakefield, Mark Geier, or Christopher Shaw associated with it. How something this bad could be published by Yale faculty (plus non-Yale faculty listed as affiliated with Yale) is beyond me. When I decided to look at this paper, I hit the jackpot in terms of—shall we say?—teaching opportunities in critical thinking.
From my standpoint, I was concerned about the quality of the database used (a commercial marketing tool, rather than an unbiased medical records database), the credentials of the authors (none appear to be epidemiologists, who know how to design these studies), and the statistics. The statistics themselves, a form of p-hacking, a form of statistical manipulation that ignores basic principles like correcting for confounding variables and establishing biological plausibility. If you look through the data, it shows that vaccinations are correlated with broken bones. Yes, it does.
It is a junk study. It doesn’t rise to the level of good evidence, just more manipulated statistics that support the pre-conceived conclusions of the anti-vaccine crowd.
The TL;DR version
Robert F Kennedy Jr. and Robert De Niro are back at it – pushing anti-vaccine nonsense and more nonsense. They get it wrong on “mercury.” They get it wrong on links between vaccines and neurological disorders (there are none). They get it wrong on everything. But because Donald Trump thinks vaccines are bad, the anti-vaccine forces think they’ve got momentum on their side.
I hope they’re wrong.
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