This book is aggressively pro-vaccine. Its focus is not on vaccines in any general way, but only on one particular ingredient, Thimerosal, which contains ethylmercury.
Although the conversation surrounding vaccines, as with any medical issue, has many facets (especially when you consider technical issues), many people are aware of only two black-and-white options: you are either pro-vaccine, or anti-vaccine. If you are a reader who wishes to absorb and evaluate the information in this book, I ask you to consider that, at minimum, there is a third alternative: you can be pro-vaccine and at the same time seek to improve the vaccine program.[i]
This book advocates one specific step to improve vaccines: removing a known neurotoxin (mercury, in the form of Thimerosal) from the list of ingredients. To make a strong case for taking this step, the book presents voluminous evidence of:
- The toxicity of Thimerosal
- Its ineffectiveness even in the bactericidal role it is supposed to play
- Safer alternatives to Thimerosal that are already available
- A history of the calls of scientists and high-level governmental and international agencies around the world to remove Thimerosal entirely from vaccines
- Implementation of this course of action in some other countries
It argues that removing Thimerosal entirely will improve both vaccines themselves and people’s trust in them.
That mercury is toxic cannot be disputed. To say otherwise is to pick a fight with the periodic table and the fundamental principles of physical chemistry. Consider the organization of electrons in atoms. Mercury is a large, heavy atom with more orbitals than lighter metals, like copper or zinc, and has a greater capacity to pick up and exchange electrons. The specific ways it can do this are not as tightly determined as in lighter atoms, making it a biochemical “wild card.” Mercury is thus a metabolic poison because it can insinuate itself into situations where it doesn’t belong. In particular it can substitute itself for lighter metals like zinc and selenium around which critical ancient enzyme systems are designed. This grossly cripples the specificity of enzymes and rates of reaction, and can spread chaos in the networks of metabolic processes, which try to generate workarounds to this logjam—but at great cost to biological and energetic resources, and often without success. This chaos may disrupt development as well as ongoing function throughout life.
Moreover, while claims have been made that the ethylmercury in Thimerosal is safer than the much better-studied methylmercury, these claims are based on weak, questionable evidence and poorly chosen assumptions. As reviewed in Chapters 4–6 herein, available data suggests that the toxicity of these two forms of mercury is at least comparable, and that ethylmercury may leave the blood more quickly—only to persist more stubbornly in organs and tissues of the body, particularly the brain.
Furthermore, mercury’s toxicity can be even worse in the presence of aluminum, which is also an ingredient in many vaccines and has toxicity issues of its own (Chapter 11).
This all being the case, why are we still putting mercury in vaccines—or in any medical product (roughly 169 consumer products including eyedrops and nose drops still contain Thimerosal)—and how can we bring ourselves to stop doing this?
To generate the fortitude to do the right thing, it may help to put this problem in a broader context.
Although potentially hazardous substances have long been buried in the seams of the earth’s mantle, leaching slowly or on occasion volcanically exploding into the living environment, human activities have contributed greatly to bringing them to the surface and putting them into circulation. Our clever, problem-solving minds have created a flood of ingenious products that increase demand for—and exposures to—these sources of potential harm.
For many years our measurement instruments were blunt enough that we only detected problems when exposures were severe. Concerns about an underbelly to our inventions were buried under elation about remarkable innovation and progress. There was little motivation to look broadly for latent or downstream effects.
Today, however, our confidence in progress is no longer so dominant, and we have entered a period of pervasive fragility. Planetary biogeochemical cycles are becoming unstable; economic vulnerabilities are persisting rather than resolving; large numbers of people are chronically ill despite enormous health care expenditures; 100,000 people a year die from unintended effects of medications used according to label;[ii] and systems science is increasingly suggesting that we need fresh approaches to health care, product development, energy, and ecosystems management.
It appears that our world is finally grasping our pileup of a huge number of errors, and we are at last entering an epoch of error correction.
What is an error? Put simply, it is a mismatch between our predictions and the outcomes. Put in systems terms, an “error” is an action that looks like a success when viewed through a narrow lens, but whose disruptive additional effects become apparent when we zoom out.
Why do predictions fail to anticipate major complications? Ironically the exquisite precision of our science may itself promote error generation. This is because precision is usually achieved by ignoring context and all the variation outside of our narrow focus, even though biological systems in particular are intrinsically variable and complex rather than uniform and simple. In fact our brains utilize this subtlety and context to make important distinctions, but our scientific methods mostly do not. The problems that come back to bite us then come from details we didn’t consider.
Once an error is entrenched it can be hard to change course. The initial investment in the error, plus fear of the likely expense (both in terms of time and money) of correcting the error, as well as the threat of damage to the reputations of those involved—these all serve as deterrents to shifting course. Patterns of avoidance then emerge that interfere with free and unbiased conduct of scientific investigations and public discourse. But if the error is not corrected, its negative consequences will continue to accumulate. When change eventually becomes unavoidable, it will be a bigger, more complicated, and expensive problem to correct—with further delay making things still worse.
Some errors happen out of naïveté and then perpetuate themselves—the introduction of nonnative species, such as rabbits in Australia that lack local predators, need not be repeated for the problem to perpetuate itself. Some catastrophes, such as the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, are local but with widely dispersed consequences, and they dramatize the need for upgrading workflows and standards to prevent similar catastrophes in the future. Some disasters occur through a combination of errors—for example, in the case of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans, the combination of institutional failures and a global warming–driven increase in the power and frequency of storms. These catastrophes and disasters are often worsened by a series of unfortunate actions and/or inaction.
When it comes to mercury, not only is it clearly toxic, even at very low exposures,[iii iv v] but our bodies derive no physiological benefit from it whatsoever. Nevertheless, one out of six children in the United States is born with levels of mercury high enough to be put at risk for neurological complications like learning disabilities, motor skill impairments, and short-term memory loss.[vi]
We can be exposed to mercury by eating fish (particularly those predators high on the food chain), being downwind of coal-fired power plants and other coal-fired industrial processes such as cement kilns, being near mines, being downwind of trash incinerators that burn hazardous and medical waste, breaking mercury-containing devices such as older thermometers, and having dental amalgams. People, including infants and pregnant mothers, can also be exposed to mercury through vaccines. In the United States, this exposure comes mainly from influenza vaccines. Although Thimerosal was removed from mandatory childhood vaccines in the United States, cumulative exposure is still high due to regular Thimerosal-containing flu shot administration starting in pregnancy and infancy. In other countries, however, particularly in developing countries (Chapters 2 and 3), more types of vaccines may contain mercury, and at higher levels.
To reduce the population’s exposure to mercury from non-vaccine sources requires policy, educational, and technical changes targeting wide swaths of the population and many different industries and communities. It is a protracted process that will be slowed by significant industry pushback. In addition, the oceans, atmosphere, waterways, and areas of land that have been contaminated with mercury will be very difficult to clean up comprehensively.
To take mercury out of vaccines is a different matter. It is used as a preservative in multidose vials, even though it doesn’t actually do that job so well (Chapter 10), and we have safe and effective alternatives (Chapter 12). Companies making vaccines could either change the preservative or shift to single-dose vials, which actually will not increase societal costs as much as has been claimed, because of wastage associated with multidose vials (see Chapter 12 and the book’s recommendations). The big point here is that there are a finite and modest number of entities that need to make a discrete and specific change—and then the job of getting mercury out of vaccines will be done.
You may ask why we should take mercury out of vaccines if there’s no definitive proof that vaccines or the mercury in them causes autism. To this I will answer: that is not the right question. The right question is, why do we persist in putting a potent toxin into a vital medical product when we don’t really need to?
Complex chronic illnesses are generally multifactorial—genetic weak spots may create vulnerability—but a pileup of noxious exposures and stressors is what wears the system down. I include autism in the broad category of complex chronic disease because of the thousands of papers now in the scientific literature documenting pathophysiology such as oxidative stress, dysfunction of mitochondrial bioenergetics, and immune/inflammatory responses that greatly overlap with what we are finding in other chronic illnesses.[vii viii] For all of these conditions the tipping point is not just the environmental insult itself, but the way it overwhelms the system, which has been pushed close to the edge by a prior accumulation of environmental insults that have been progressively degrading the physiological systems in our bodies and brains. The shift into an illness state may be gradual, or it may occur at some particular point when the physiological systems cannot compensate anymore and shift their functioning to a less resource- and energy-demanding (and thereby less efficient) state. I predict that ultimately we will determine that it is not any one or a few environmental risk factors that uniquely tip people over into chronic illness, but rather the total, degradative load (or “allostatic load”) of exposures, stressors, and low-nutrient-density food that tips most people over the edge into illness from latent vulnerabilities.[ix x xi xii]
From the vantage point of a total (allostatic) load model of chronic disease, basic management and prevention principles include reducing noxious exposures and stressors as much as possible, and also increasing nutritional and lifestyle supports.[xiii] Every little bit counts—and in the case of mercury, it is so toxic that even a little bit can go a long way in dragging the system down. As a metabolic “wild card” mercury does not have a one-to-one relationship with specific illnesses; but rather, by disturbing fundamental developmental processes and acting as a metabolic poison, it degrades the integrity of the system and aggravates people’s vulnerabilities. In particular, it poisons critical core regulatory and protective pathways (including methylation, DNA repair, and thioredoxin)[xiv xv xvi xvii xviii xix xx]—and, when such systems are dysfunctional, many things suffer. Even at low doses it can interfere with chemical processes in brain and body, lead to gross and subtle neuromotor problems and subtle or dramatic cognitive impairment,[xxi] promote autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis,[xxii] and bias the system toward being more fragile and vulnerable to future challenges.
Even so, while our physiology has environmentally vulnerable spots where mercury can contribute to this process of system overload and degradation, those same physiological processes are also vulnerable to myriad other noxious influences.[xxiii] From both the total (allostatic) load and the precautionary points of view, mercury is among a broad range of noxious exposures that degrade body and brain health. Such exposures should therefore be totally avoided, if possible.[xxiv] Different people may have different weak points, making epidemiology of particular diseases an insensitive way to pick up the range of mercury’s impacts.
With all of this in mind, the bottom line is that by exposing the population to unnecessary mercury in vaccines, we are gambling with population health through the same intervention that we use to protect it.
The painful truth is that our country and planet face a rocky road in years to come—unstable weather patterns, fires, natural disasters, risks of novel infectious diseases, risks of food and water shortages, health problems exacerbated by these environmental challenges, and prospects of recurrent economic constriction. Under these circumstances, why would we want to expose our population to yet another noxious stressor that could further deplete our resilience and interfere with our ability to think straight—when it is totally unnecessary?
Based upon all of this, it is clear now that mercury is something to which no one should be deliberately exposed. As such, it is an error to include it in vaccines or indeed in any therapeutics—and in these domains it is an error within our grasp to correct, and prudent to do so. We tend to take a long time to correct errors[xxv]—it took seventy-five years to get the lead out of gasoline.[xxvi xxvii] Let’s do a better job this time. So many considerations and pieces of evidence are compiled in this one comprehensive volume. I hope and implore that it moves us all to do whatever it takes—make whatever adjustments necessary—to correct this error, because it CAN be corrected—indeed MUST be corrected—so let’s just DO IT. THEN we can focus more effectively on the harder problems lying ahead.
Martha R. Herbert, PhD, MD
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[iii]US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Mercury.http://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/mercury/.
[iv]US Food and Drug Administration, US Environmental Protection Agency. What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish (Brochure). March, 2004:http://www.fda.gov/food/resourcesforyou/consumers/ucm110591.htm.
[v]Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry CfDC. Toxic Substances Portal – Mercury. April, 1999:http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxfaqs/tf.asp?id=113&tid=24.
[vi]US National Institute of Environmental Healthy Sciences. Child Development and Environmental Toxins.http://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/assets/docs_a_e/child_development_and_environmental_toxins_508.pdf.
[vii]Rossignol DA, Frye RE. A review of research trends in physiological abnormalities in autism spectrum disorders: immune dysregulation, inflammation, oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunction and environmental toxicant exposures. Mol Psychiatry. 2012;17(4):389-401. doi: 10.1038/mp.2011.165. PubMed PMID: 22143005; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3317062.
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[x]Herbert MR, Weintraub K. The Autism Revolution: Whole Body Strategies for Making Life All It Can Be. New York, NY: Random House with Harvard Health Publications; 2012.
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[xv]Arner ES, Holmgren A. Physiological functions of thioredoxin and thioredoxin reductase. European journal of biochemistry / FEBS. 2000;267(20):6102-9. PubMed PMID: 11012661.
[xvi]Pilsner JR, Lazarus AL, Nam DH, Letcher RJ, Sonne C, Dietz R, et al. Mercury-associated DNA hypomethylation in polar bear brains via the LUminometric Methylation Assay: a sensitive method to study epigenetics in wildlife. Molecular ecology. 2010;19(2):307-14. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2009.04452.x. PubMed PMID: 20002585.
[xvii]Ariza ME, Holliday J, Williams MV. Mutagenic effect of mercury (II) in eukaryotic cells. In vivo. 1994;8(4):559-63. PubMed PMID: 7893984.
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[xxvi]Kitman JL. The Secret History of Lead. The Nation. 2000 (March 20):http://www.thenation.com/article/secret-history-lead.
[xxvii]United Nations Environmental Program. Phasing Lead Out of Gasoline: An Examination of Policy Approaches in Different Countries. Stevenage, Hertfordshire, UK: Earthprint (University of London); 1999.