There Is No Mercury in Vaccines

by Deb on November 4, 2010

Salt

This post is part of Vaccine Awareness Week,  check out #vaxfax on Twitter or Science Based Medicine to see what’s going on.  It is also cross posted on She Thought, the group blog where I think critically.

You’ll have to indulge me a little here, but elements and compounds is year 7 or 8 science so this is a class I teach pretty much every year.  I’ll actually avoid mercury and vaccines to the end, and start by telling you a little story …

Chlorine is a highly poisonous gas, it was used in 1915 to devastating effect on soldiers in Ypres.  It is a pale yellow green and smells terrible, so it’s pretty noticeable.

Sodium is a soft silvery metal that is extremely reactive in water – it has to be stored under oil because it will react with the water in the air.  It gets so hot it is molten and will burst into flame, it is even worse with acids such as vinegar and reacts explosively.

So you would expect that these two chemicals are very dangerous and must be handled with caution.  You would think that a substance with both of them in it would be hazardous and treated with the utmost care.

Introducing sodium chloride, this most dangerous of chemicals.  It is made up of one chloride ion bonded to one sodium ion and forms a crystalline white solid shown above.  You’re probably familiar with it, in fact it’s almost certainly in your kitchen right now.  Because it’s salt.  Common table salt.  If we were to go by the elemental properties, this would be far too dangerous to have anywhere near us.  It would be poisonous and explosive (especially with acids).  But we all know it isn’t.

And that’s why there has never been mercury in vaccines.  There used to be a preservative called thiomersal (or thimerosal in the US) that contained mercury as part of a compound.  But the properties of a compound have nothing to do with the properties of the elements that make it up.  The fact that it has an atom of mercury bonded to the other atoms of sodium (Aaaaargh!), sulphur (oh dear), oxygen (burns), carbon and hydrogen (explosive in the presence of oxygen) is completely irrelevant when working out whether or not it is dangerous.  You might as well say it is flammable because it contains hydrogen and oxygen, but then water would be as well and we don’t get all upset about that.  As it happens, thiomersal has been removed from all the vaccines in the childhood schedule anyway (in Australia, I can’t speak for the rest of the world), it is used during manufacture to kill bacteria but not in the final product.

This isn’t to say that thiomersal is as safe as water (and it doesn’t matter anyway because it isn’t in there).  What it is saying is that thiomersal and every other ingredient needs to be evaluated on its own properties, not those of mercury or whatever other atoms happen to be in them.  Otherwise you would need to be wary of poison gas when cooking, and stay well away from salt and vinegar chips – they might explode.

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Ro November 4, 2010 at 3:29 pm

I know at least 10 yrs ago the US-based FDA had ruled that thiomersal be removed from vaccines produced for use in the USA, not sure about their export market.
I worked in the environmental care unit at a hosp where we tested patients with umpteen chemicals for allergies/intolerance’s and with toluene they reported symptoms that could be mistaken for those experienced by those on the autistic spectrum.
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Deb November 4, 2010 at 4:36 pm

In Australia it’s been gone since 1998. It’s an interesting story and directly relates to my post – they were looking at the safety level in ethyl-mercury, the chemical found in fish. This compound builds up in your body and is what causes mercury poisoning, which has completely different symptoms to autism. The compound in thiomersal is methyl mercury, which is excreted and doesn’t build up. The moral is if you are scared of mercury, don’t eat tuna.

I can believe toluene would cause major problems, it’s an industrial solvent and highly toxic. Unfortunately people breathe it to get high, not a good idea, and I’m pretty sure it’s also in cigarettes.

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Elva November 8, 2010 at 4:22 am

While I will not say that vaccines are safe for sure. It is scary how people jump behind these Hollywood stars who do not know any science and encourage people to not vaccinate at all.
Each parent should make an informed decision that is best for their family.

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Cassie February 23, 2011 at 8:19 am

I am almost left speechless by this post… assuming much?

I know a lot of people who do not vaccinate, let me assure you that not a single one of those people has done this because of a Hollywood star.

I would take a guess that the distribution of ‘parents who do things because a Hollywood star does them’ would be pretty evenly balanced across all mums… well at the very least I would not make a sweeping assumption to the contrary… this is a science blog, surely attracting intelligent mums who do not make rude assumptions like that.

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Fiona November 12, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Thank you for a rational post on the subject
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Parenting Advisor February 1, 2011 at 9:27 pm

Still we cant say vaccination is safe of danger. But as coin has two side, vaccines also as their advantage & disadvantage.

Thanks for such informative post.
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Deb February 1, 2011 at 9:45 pm

It depends what you mean by safe from danger – walking isn’t safe from danger, especially for toddlers. Putting kids in a car is extremely dangerous and letting them near the bathroom or kitchen is the most dangerous thing you can do, but we still do it.

The advantages of vaccines are enormous – not dying or even just being sick from measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, flu, diptheria, polio, smallpox, Haemophilus influenzae, meningococcal, pneumococcal, rotavirus, HPV, Hep B, pertussis or tetanus is almost unimaginably good.

The genuine disadvantages exist but are extremely rare, far, far rarer than household or car accidents.

People need to be protected from frauds such as Wakefield so they can make decisions based on reality rather than fear mongering.

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cass February 23, 2011 at 8:35 am

Firstly, thank you for great blog post (likewise for the Herd Immunity blog post).

My background is an educated mum who definitely questions lots of things society sees as normal. I have surprised myself by siding a lot with the more left-wing mums since becoming a mum.

I have struggled with the question of whether to vaccinate since my daughter was born (FWIW she is now 14 months and has received all her vaccinations except her last one, which has been the hardest one for me to decide upon.).

I took the first few vaccinations simply because I was not going to front up to the health nurse and say “I don’t want that one” and when asked why to respond “because I read it on the Internet” or “because my friend said so”. However as a mother with a babe in my arms certain anecdotal evidence must be considered. Note I did not say blindly believed, but I said it should be considered.

When you see a room full of people raise there hand in answer to the question “do you believe your child’s autism was caused by a vaccination” it would be a foolish mum who simple ignores it all because a doctor said so. I think the gut feeling of a mum can be too quickly dismissed, my gut says take a second loo

I am not content to merely accept what a medical professional says. I believe they are valuable, but I also mistrust* them. I see things that I know are wrong which sheds doubt about other things. My typical reaction to a situation like this is to do research and make my own decision. However researching vaccinations is so difficult. Not only does it require a strong scientific background, it also requires lots of time and ability to wade through the mud that both sides seem intent on slinging.

*I will start to sound like a ‘hippy’ soon. I suspect I am slowing transforming into one. It is not a mistrust of medical professionals, it is a general mistrust of the herd mentality that society can often adopt. I am a high school teacher, I am continually disgusted at what society accepts as a healthy education for their children. The majority of teachers are happy to teach in an authoritarian manner never actually question what it is that the child is learning. Try asking your non-scientific friends how much math or science they actually remember. My argument is that government, teachers, universities and parents all blindly accept a system which is far from great. Why would I assume that the government, doctors, universities and drug companies are any different?

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cass February 23, 2011 at 8:36 am

Wow.. that was long and I didn’t say what I meant to say.

You blog post was the most inciteful and balanced information that I have read. Thank you for making a big decision easier.

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Deb February 24, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Thankyou Cass. That’s actually the best argument I’ve heard for not trusting doctors and it made me think, possibly because as a teacher I can relate.

How does this sound – just as there are good and bad teachers there are good and bad doctors. Some of the health systems are flawed or at least biased for many reasons, as well as being limited because of lack of money. Then there are philosophical or moral issues for which individuals can have very different but equally valid responses. There are even competing pressures on what the goal of the health system should be from different elements of society. So I agree I can see a lot of parallels between health and education.

So as a science teacher, the periodic table is one of the basic necessities. Whether I am the best or worst teacher that exists, whether I get students to explore it themselves or rote memorise it, whether they understand it or not when I’ve finished the class, is a completely separate issue. ‘The periodic table’ does not change, no matter what the education system or an individual does to it.

Isn’t that the equivalent of the vaccine? The basic science of immunology and producing vaccines is completely separate from the rest of the health care system. Whatever legitimate isues there are with doctors, advertising, corporate interests, rules on what is paid for or funding of different aspects of health care, how vaccines work and their safety is separate to that and doesn’t change.

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Deb February 24, 2011 at 12:01 pm

PS – I love analogies. They’re a great way to check your thinking and really get to grips with systems.

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cass February 24, 2011 at 5:36 pm

I love analogies too.

I think the periodic table analogy is flawed… unless multi-national corporations stand to profit hugely from the sale of the periodic table. This is not to say that I disagree with what you are saying though.

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cass February 24, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Also there are not communities of people who believe that the periodic table has the potential to cause autism.

..but just to show I am an opened minded and undecided person honestly interested in seeing both sides of the argument I will let you know that I want more evidence than just websites, communities and conspiracy theories. Otherwise I might begin to question whether men landed on the moon.

John Gaydon February 23, 2011 at 6:41 pm

Interesting discussion. Sometimes I think that Autism, because it is so scary is the only thing talked about as a possible side effect of vaccines.

I watched “The Vaccine Wars” with dismay recently, and it was very biased in my opinion. The arguement seemd to be that anyone who opposed vaccines was endangering the lives of those who did! The obvious implication is that vaccines don’t work. If they were so good, it wouldn’t matter what other parents did with their kids.

With increases in Autism, childhood diabetes, juvenile arthritis, Asbergers, ADHD and a host of other conditions, something is wrong. It is possibly that the high level of vaccines contributes to this, but I don’t know of any reasearcher who would get funding to investigate it.

As I said, the jury is out, but if you don’t get an immediate reaction, no one ties a condition to the vaccine. My solution. Get the toxins out of the system as fast as possible.

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Deb February 23, 2011 at 9:31 pm

Hi John, I agree that autism is one of the things parents find scary. But I think another reason it is so prominent is because Generation Rescue, which is based on autism support, is a major anti-vax player in the US. There are many, many other things used to scare parents, I recently wrote a post on another blog arguing we are seeing a shift in focus to Gardasil.

I have covered the reasons for the concern over people who don’t vaccinate in my post on How Herd Immunity Works. Briefly when the numbers of immune people are low, the disease continues to circulate. There are many people who cannot be vaccinated for varying reasons – they might be immunocompromised or have a family member who is, or they may be too young. Sixteen babies have recently died in the whooping cough epidemics in Australia and California – all too young to be vaccinated. It’s not an argument that vaccines don’t work at all, it’s an argument that there are some people, including babies and people with cancer, who deserve protection.

As for the various diseases you list, you first need to demonstrate that there is an actual rise in incidence, not just a rise in diagnosis. Aspergers and ADHD are perfect examples – they have only recently been defined. It was literally impossible for people to be diagnosed with them a few decades ago because they didn’t exist, and now middle aged and elderly people are being diagnosed. Have they suddenly developed these conditions? Or did they have them all along and they are only now being recognised? If it’s the latter then there is no increase, just different or better labelling – does this mean something is right?. In addition I’ve come across a lovely graph recently for autism and mental retardation. Were you aware that there has been a marked decrease in mental retardation in the US over the last few decades? (Another indication something is right?) Interestingly, the decrease in mental retardation almost exactly parallels the increase in autism. In other words, what is almost certainly happening here is diagnostic substitution – there are the same number of children with some condition, but some who used to be diagnosed with mental retardation are now being diagnosed with autism.

And researchers do get funding to investigate links with diseases, it’s already been done dozens of times and research continues. Here are more than 40 studies on autism and vaccines that show no link. There are studies on allergies, diabetes and a whole host of studies on juvenile arthritis and vaccines, including a study of baseline data on autoimmune diseases for use in post-vaccine surveillance. These took me a few minutes searching on Pub Med to find, there are literally hundreds of them available. Just because no links have been found doesn’t mean it hasn’t or isn’t being studied – it means that studies have been done and found no links.

The jury is actually in – studies across the world have shown that the current childhood vaccine schedules are not causing hidden epidemics. This includes long term post-marketing surveillance in many different countries.

As for toxins, that gambit is too enormous to deal with in a comment. Suffice it to say that there is no mercury as shown here, and no aluminium for the same reasons. The type of formaldehyde used in some vaccines is the same chemical produced by your own body when you eat fruit. There are anti-biotics in some vaccines and usually a bit of salt, sugar and of course water. All at such tiny dosages that your body barely notices them. The same as it barely notices the aluminium you breathe in from the air and eat in all your food – the dose makes the poison.

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cass February 24, 2011 at 5:47 pm

“As for the various diseases you list, you first need to demonstrate that there is an actual rise in incidence, not just a rise in diagnosis. Aspergers and ADHD are perfect examples – they have only recently been defined. It was literally impossible for people to be diagnosed with them a few decades ago because they didn’t exist, and now middle aged and elderly people are being diagnosed. Have they suddenly developed these conditions? Or did they have them all along and they are only now being recognised?” (from Deb)

While what you are saying is academically correct, it is difficult to swallow as a mum (bundle of joy in lap etc). Not proving something is not disproving it and it is completely unethical to test for this stuff in a controlled environment.

So… as a mum hearing “we don’t know whether it has increase because of something that you are doing or because we are better at testing” is not good enough.

A question… have studies been done in other non-western cultures to see if there is a correlation between being in a western society and having autism?

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sharon April 9, 2011 at 9:05 am

I have a child with Autism. He was born ASD. No reaction to vaccines whatsoever. I think it ‘s important to note that Aspergers comes under the ASD umbrella so the rates for Autism include Aspergers and pdd-nos. Stats clearly show an increase when the diagnostic criteria widened around 20 years ago, and since that time have been steady. This whole epidemic beat up serves to instill fear without reason.

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Ismail April 8, 2011 at 11:17 pm

Does not the DT vaccine (used in Australia) contain thiomersal?

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Deb April 8, 2011 at 11:36 pm

Hi Ismail,
The point of the post is that thiomersal is not mercury, any more than salt is sodium or chlorine. A compound has very different properties to an element.

I’m not sure exactly what vaccine you are talking about, in Australia diptheria and tetanus in the childhood vaccination schedule are usually given as infanrix-hexa. There is a vaccine called ADT or Diptheria and Tetanus, Adsorbed which is used for children over 5 or adults who require a tetanus booster. Neither of these vaccines contain thiomersal.

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Autism and Oughtisms April 10, 2011 at 5:35 am

Great post, I will be sharing this with the far-too-many people I come across who claim vaccines are dangerous because of their mercury content.
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Louise October 11, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Unfortunately the Australian Govt Health advice pdf regarding the safety of vaccines that contain thiomersal is not quite as sure as you are that it is in fact safe, http://www.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/content/161A07AA9F13BE32CA25719D001833FC/$File/uci-myths-guideprov-thiomersal.pdf
and as such I would not under any circumstances be giving my child the flu vaccine.

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Deb October 11, 2011 at 10:11 pm

Did you actually read either the post or your own link? The point of the post is on the difference between elements and compounds, and why on earth would you listen to someone who fails at such a basic level of chemistry.

And your own link states that:
‘In the very low doses contained in vaccines, there is no evidence that thiomersal in vaccines causes mercury poisoning. In the body, thiomersal is converted to ethylmercury, which is thought to be similar to methylmercury, but is broken down and excreted more rapidly than methylmercury. As such, its potential to cause toxicity is less than that of methylmercury. There is no scientific evidence that thiomersal in vaccines causes any adverse health effects in children.’

That sounds pretty sure to me.

It goes on to state that there is a theoretical danger in newborns especially with low birthweight if they are given repeated doses that they may have levels above guidelines. Isn’t it lucky we don’t give newborns repeated doses of any vaccines containing thiomersal, avoiding even this theoretical danger. In fact, there are no vaccines on the Australian childhood schedule that contain thiomersal – as I pointed out in the post.

As for the flu vaccine, if you check out the Influenza Vaccination 2011 fact sheet, you’ll see that the two approved vaccines for children under 5 are Influvac and Vaxigrip. Fluvax may be used in children between 5 and 10 if there is no alternative available. Then go to this handy little reference, the Australian Immunisation Handbook and you’ll see that none of those vaccines contain thiomersal.

So given that vaccines have never contained mercury (remember that year 7 chemistry!), your link points out that the tiny amounts of thiomersal there used to be are not a cause for concern and the flu vaccines don’t even contain thiomersal, that doesn’t sound like something you need to worry about. Does it?

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Peter Bowditch November 11, 2011 at 5:26 pm

People never tire of telling me about the mercury in vaccines. Sometimes I like to reply by pointing out how very dangerous sugar is. http://www.ratbags.com/rsoles/history/2010/06june.htm#5chemistry

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Deb November 11, 2011 at 5:39 pm

I know, it’s amazing our kitchens and houses don’t explode. Those chemicals are dangerous stuff.
On a similar note, I have put 98% Sulfuric acid on sugar and it is a very cool reaction. The acid strips the water out of the sugar and produces lots of heat, you end up with a black carbon gel that expands as it is filled with bubbles of steam. If that was happening frequently people would definitely be scared of it.

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