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Thimerosal nightmare.

One of the big medical mysteries of the past decade is the alarming rise in the number of autism cases among children. In 1991, autism hit one kid in 2,500. It was rare enough that it lurked in the background, a spooky but not terribly immediate possibility for most parents. Since then, the rate has risen fifteen times, so that it now strikes one out of every 166 children. There are half a million autistic children in the U.S. right now. With the amount of effort, care, and cost that it takes to raise an autistic child–not to mention continuing costs and support required throughout adulthood–this is an enormous, looming public health crisis.

It’s also a tragedy — a tragedy because it could have been prevented. While many causes have been proposed for the rise in autism (including, incredibly, geeky parents), none have really stuck. Until now.

Robert Kennedy Jr. reports in Salon on what seems to be a very clear linkage between thimerosal and autism. Thimerosal is a preservative that, until recently, was used in many vaccines. It also contains mercury, which has been shown to have dramatic effects on the brains of infants and young children. In small doses, it may be no big deal. But since 1991, the number of vaccinations children in the U.S. get has risen from 3 to about 22. That’s a sharp increase in mercury exposure–and it correlates extremely well with the rise in autism.

Shockingly, the Centers for Disease Control has known about this link since before 2000. The FDA reports that thimerosal has been greatly reduced if not eliminated from most vaccines — at least the ones used in the U.S. — since then. Yet the federal government has done nothing to publicize the effects of thimerosal–in fact, it covered up research confirming the autistic effects of thimerosal. Even worse: Senate Majority leader Bill Frist (who has received $873,000 in contributions from the pharmaceutical industry, by the way) keeps trying to put riders on various bills to protect thimerosal’s maker, Eli Lilly, from legal liability.

I’m not eager to join the freaky ranks of the anti-vaccination crowd, but the research on this seems quite specific and quite scary. (More details.)

Fortunately for babies currently being vaccinated in the U.S., thimerosal is no longer an issue. But if Kennedy is right, this is a huge scandal–and because it should have been identified and corrected years ago, it’s especially shocking. If I were a reporter this is the story I’d be chasing right now.

Note: One reporter, Dan Olmsted, has been doing just that (more Olmsted links here).

1 Comment

  1. Scot Hacker

    When Miles was born, we looked pretty carefully into the Thimerosol issue and just kept running into conflicting data and opinions. It was very frustrating. We finally accepted the advice of our pediatrician, who is a fairly crunchy/granola type, and went ahead with it on her assurance that mercury had been mostly eliminated from vaccinations and that she didn’t believe the evidence of autism linkage was conclusive. But we still wonder.

    Just yesterday we read that microwaving baby bottles can cause them to release chemical particulates into the milk, and that one should never do it. Great, we’ve been doing it for almost three years. And just a few weeks ago we found out that it’s potentially dangerous to drink from garden hoses made of certain kinds of plastics. Great, Miles has been hooked on drinking from the hose for two years (we’ve since replaced the hose with a potable medical grade hose).

    So frustrating – he’s so fresh and new, and already we’re feeling guilty about possible introduction of all of this chemistry. And we wonder why sperm counts are down, autism is up, etc. etc. Just how much effort does it take to create a safe environment for your children, anyway?

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