One of the most pernicious medical myths of recent years has been the claim, promulgated by a subgroup of parents of autistic children and facilitated by scientists of dubious repute, that somehow the mercury in the thimerosal (ethyl mercury) preservative used in common childhood vaccines in the U.S. until early 2002 causes autism. Although it had been percolating under the radar of most parents and scientists for several years before, this belief invaded the national zeitgeist in a big way in 2005, beginning with the publication of a book by journalist David Kirby entitled Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy. The fires of hysteria were stoked even higher by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who published a truly twisted and misleading piece of pseudojournalism and pseudoscience published simultaneously in Rolling Stone and on Salon.com entitled Deadly Immunity. Relying primarily on quote-mining of the transcripts of both a conference held Atlanta by the CDC to discuss the question of whether autism is related to thimerosal in vaccines and an Institute of Medicine report on vaccines while simultaneously misrepresenting the results of two studies by Verstaeten et al to paint a false picture of a government coverup, RFK Jr. almost single-handedly managed to stoke fears that vaccines were causing an “epidemic of autism.”
I say “almost” single-handedly, because, unfortunately, he had help. Relying on the dubious research of a variety of investigators, such as the father-and-son team of Dr. Mark Geier and David Geier, whose prodigious output of badly designed studies emanating from a lab in their home in suburban Maryland, done using a rubberstamp institutional review board stacked with friends and cronies to approve the studies, and published for the most part in non-peer-reviewed journals, activists loudly insisted that mercury in vaccines was the cause of most autism. Others claiming to demonstrate this link include Boyd Haley, a chemist from the University of Kentucky, and a few other vocal scientists and advocates, who claim that autism is, in essence, mercury poisoning. Facilitating the dissemination of this message were reporters such as David Kirby, activists such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and media personalities such as Don Imus. Indeed, some activists claimed that some vaccines were “poisoning” our children, even going so far as show photos of autistic children with the label “mercury-poisoned” underneath them on placards held aloft at protest rallies. They made quite a splash then, and still do to a lesser extent even today. There’s just one problem.