Flu vaccine ingredients – not so scary using simple math

When dealing with those pushing pseudoscience, like the antivaccination cult, the most frustrating thing is that they tend to ignore and deny the most basic tenets of science. If denying the fact of gravity would further their goals of “proving” vaccines are neither effective nor safe, they would do so. And now that it’s flu season, they’re producing zombie tropes about flu vaccine ingredients.

If the antivaccination movement didn’t lead to epidemics of long-gone diseases, which can harm and kill children, the conversation would be over. I would just put the vaccine deniers in the same group as evolution deniers (creationists) or gravity deniers (there has to be some, somewhere). I would mock their pseudoscience, and move on. Of course, their denialism does lead to deaths of children, so we have to do what is right, and stop their lies, misinformation and ignorance in every forum we can.

We have to appeal to scientific values, and despite the fact that antivaccination pushers don’t share those values, we must continue to try. I have gotten enough emails and comments from people that they have started to vaccinate because of what I have written, so maybe some child’s life is better because all of us who support vaccines are heard.

Mathematics and science

To many, mathematics is the foundation of all science. Biology is dependent upon chemistry which is dependent upon physics which is dependent upon mathematics. Of course, I’m oversimplifying the relationships between the various branches of basic science, but my own scientific education moved in roughly the direction of advanced mathematics through basic physics to organic and physical chemistry to biology, cell biology, biochemistry and physiology.

Without mathematics, the scientific method might not make sense, because it requires statistical analysis to find small changes or differences. Though it is long lost from my brain, advanced statistics was necessary in every analysis I performed in my science life. It allowed me to find biological changes with tiny amounts of a hormone or growth factor. I didn’t observe the changes directly, only through mathematical analysis did it become apparent.


flu vaccine ingredients
All of those scary ingredients in the flu vaccine. Except, they’re really not scary.

Above is a photo circulating around social networks that attempt to point out all of the scary flu vaccine ingredients. Of course, if one has an understanding of A) basic human physiology, and B) basic mathematics, including how small numbers are really small, this photo with the scary ingredients highlighted would be laughable. Well, I do have and understanding of both, and this is laughable. I mean so laughable, it’s possible I pulled a muscle.


Dose makes the poison

Let me stress an important point. Dose makes the poison. And the dose here is too low to make it a poison.

If you spend any amount of time on the internet researching science and pseudoscience, you’ll find alarming claims about toxic or poisonous substances in our foods, vaccines, air, water, and so much else. And then you’ll find a lot of people (myself included) who try to present science-based evidence that these substances are neither toxic nor poisonous.

Generally, the pseudoscience argument proceeds along the lines of “this unpronounceable chemical is going to cause cancer.” And the science (read scientific skeptic) side says “wrong!” Or something like that.

Paracelsus, a 16th century Swiss German physician, alchemist, astrologer, is traditionally thought to have founded the discipline of toxicology, an important branch of medicine, physiology, and pharmacology. Paracelsus wrote one of the most important principles of toxicology:

All things are poisons, for there is nothing without poisonous qualities. It is only the dose which makes a thing poison.

In other words, if you’re speaking about substances in foods or vaccines or anything, the most important principle is that the dose makes the poison (or toxin). Everything that we can consume or breathe is potentially toxic, but what is the most overriding principle must be the dose.


Flu vaccine ingredients – formaldehyde

Let’s start with with first highlighted ingredient, formaldehyde. This simple bio-organic molecule is used in the purification of the vaccine (the last thing we want is contamination from viruses or bacteria)– 99.9% of which is removed during the final steps of manufacturing.

The package labeling does not include the amount of formaldehyde in the vaccines because it is so tiny, so minuscule, so veritably invisible, that the amount actually cannot be measured. It’s possible that there is actually no formaldehyde in solution, because it cannot be measured, but the chances are good there is some because the manufacturing process can’t dilute out the vaccine sufficiently to guarantee that every picogram (that’s one trillionth of a gram) is removed, because it would dilute the vaccine’s antigen too.

But I can tell you where formaldehyde can be measure. The normal blood level of formaldehyde is 2.74 +/- 0.14 mg/L. A normal child has a blood volume of 2-3 L, so a normal child has 5-9 mg of formaldehyde floating in her blood, about 1,000,000X more than found in a dose of vaccine. Is that math clear? It would take probably 10-20 million doses of vaccines to just slightly increase the formaldehyde level in your child.

Now you might think “how did that evil formaldehyde get into my sweet child whom I feed organic foods, and don’t let them touch vaccines.” Well, not only do your math skills suck (let me remind the reader, 10 million doses of vaccines to measurably move the formaldehyde level–all at once), but so does your physiology knowledge. The body produces formaldehyde as a byproduct of metabolizing alcohols (not necessarily just from a beer, but the alcohol that is produced in the body and in other foods). And lots of foods contain formaldehyde, including fruits, nuts, and other yummy things.

In addition, formaldehyde is filtered from the blood rather quickly (since it is toxic), and its half-life, that is the average time one-half of the molecules of formaldehyde stay in the blood, is around 1 minute. It does not accumulate, so even if you got that 10-20 million doses of vaccines, the tiny amount of formaldehyde injected would be gone in 1-2 minutes. It is simple math.

Yes, formaldehyde is a carcinogen, it can cause cancer. However, the reference dose (that is the maximum daily dose over a lifetime that would be considered safe) for formaldehyde is around 0.2 mg/kg weight/day. In other words, an average child, let’s say 20 kg (about 48 lbs), could consume 4 mg of formaldehyde a day safely. Again, about 1 million times more formaldehyde than in a single dose of vaccines. Even amongst the most enthusiastic vaccine supporters, no is demanding that children get 1 million vaccinations. Every day. For the rest of their lives.

And formaldehyde occurs naturally everywhere. It’s in apples, up to 22 ppm (parts per million). Or around 11 mg of formaldehyde. Maybe that old saying about an apple a day should be ended?

Once again, it is just the math.

Are we clear on this? The math doesn’t support the ludicrous claims that formaldehyde in vaccines is poisoning our children.


Flu vaccine ingredients – thiomersal

So let’s move on to the other highlighted flu vaccine ingredients, and that’s the old canard, dangerous thiomersal (or thimerosal in the USA–my education is 100% US based, but for some reason I’ve used the non-USA spelling for 30 years). Let’s make some points clear right now. This is NOT mercury in its elemental form, which you might remember from old-style medical thermometers. So there isn’t a pool of mercury in the vaccine vial. Moreover, thiomersal is ONLY used, at least in vaccines, in multi-use vials, these days, only the flu vaccine.

Thiomersal is a toxic compound, there is no denying that. But let’s get back to math. The toxicity of compounds is measured through an analysis called the dose-response relationship. This describes the change in effect on an organism caused by differing doses of a compound after a certain exposure time. Table salt is tasty and safe in small amounts, but could kill you if taken in huge amounts. The dose-response relationship provides a graph that mathematically describes what amounts of a compound causes what effects. This would seem to be a logical, and easily understood concept. Unfortunately, for many individuals, a bad substance is always bad.

First of all, the half-life of thiomersal in blood is around 2.2 days. That might seem long, but it means half is gone in a couple of days, cleared out by the kidneys. It does not accumulate.

But the math is even more telling. This flu vaccine, given once a year, has a maximum dose of 25 micrograms of mercury (but not elemental mercury). According to an NIH database, the LD50, that is, the approximate dose at which 50% of organisms will die (in this case a mouse), is 98 mg/kg body weight, if delivered subcutaneously, generally how vaccines are delivered.

A 20 kg child would get 25 micrograms of non-elemental mercury (remember, thimerosal is not mercury) in one injection every year. The theoretical LD50 dose for that same child would be around 2000 mg of thiomersal, or about 80,000 times higher than the amount of thiomersal in one vaccine dose–if vaccines used in children actually had thiomersal, which it doesn’t.

So, you would have to inject your child 80,000 times a day, every day, to make it potentially toxic. And no, dose-response relationships are not linear. That doesn’t mean that there’s some tiny risk of death from even a small dose of thiomersal. There is actually NO risk. And again, since there’s no thiomersal in pediatric vaccines this argument is ridiculous.

Clearly, we have solid scientific data that show us that thiomersal is totally unrelated to autism. And it is completely safe in vaccines. This illogical removal of thiomersal from vaccines makes it nearly impossible to have multi-use vials. Thus, every vaccine must be a single-use prefilled syringe. That has rapidly driven up the costs of vaccines. Wait. That’s more evidence that antivaccination lunatics are in the pockets of Big Pharma. They pushed to get rid of thiomersal to make more profits for Big Pharma. That was an awesome move on their part.


Those scary flu vaccine ingredients

So there it is. Simple math shows us that these are not dangerous toxins being injected into our kids. Sadly, simple math may not be in the list of skills of vaccine deniers. Dose makes the poison, and these doses are so low, they are undeniably safe.

And if you’re worried about formaldehyde (you shouldn’t be), then avoid apples and pears. Because every apple has twice the formaldehyde of a flu vaccine shot. This is what happens when you science something – you get a better picture of the facts.

More simple math problems for vaccine deniers in my follow up article.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in March 2014. It has been completely updated several times to include more comprehensive information, to improve readability and to add current research. Oh, and to remove an egregious mathematics error. See, I told you, math matters to science.



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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!