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Thimerosol in Flu Vaccines? America's Mercury Habit is Nothing New

By some views, it's just as possible that sunscreen -- and sun avoidance -- is causing far more harm than mercury ever did.
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After agonizing over claims that dangerous toxins lurk in swine flu vaccines, Americans are lining up for their shots. That doesn't mean pro-vaccine forces have conclusively won the debate that's been raging on the Internet. People are simply more frightened of swine flu than they are of the (49% mercury) thimerosal that serves to keep bacteria and fungus out of the vaccine.

Mercury is a neurotoxic element that was once known as quicksilver and ranks next to gold at No. 80 on the periodic table. Isaac Newton, the first physicist and creator of the theory of gravity, experimented with quicksilver, even drank it. Some scholars view Newton's workaholism, raging competitiveness, religious fanaticism, and terminal virginity--he died without ever apparently having had sex--as indicators that he suffered from mercury poisoning.

Today the blood of one in three American woman contains detectable levels of mercury.

Mercury floods the atmosphere every time we fire up a coal plant. The neurotoxin rains down on our lakes, rivers, and oceans, tainting the fish we eat and particularly threatening the nerve cells of pregnant women, their fetuses, and young children.

So when was the last time you saw a kid or a woman of childbearing age turn down tuna fish?

Then there are compact fluorescent light bulbs. These contain enough mercury to be labeled dangerous, yet authorities haven't seen fit to come up with safe ways for Americans to turn in their burnouts. Most toss them in the trash, where they inevitably break--bad news for neighbors, passersby, custodians, garbage collectors, and refuse recyclers. (The good news? As long as you personally avoid the toxic fumes, you can relish the notion that less mercury will reach the environment because the bulbs reduce coal consumption.)

For people over 30, mercury is the perhaps-surprising identity of the stuff Moms used to smear on children's skinned and bloody knees. For much of the 20th Century, American wounds were treated with a selection of ever-more painful tinctures. Mercurochrome was the mild reddish stuff made from a compound of mercury and bromine. It stung the least, but plenty of children cried the first few times they experienced it.

As they grew, kids could look forward to an reddish-orange antiseptic that burned a lot more: Merthiolate made them bawl the first few times they experienced it, but the stuff sure killed bacteria and fungus. That's why pharmaceutical companies put it in the vaccines that contain deactivated flu. Yes, Merthiolate happens to be the trade name for...thimerosal.

Few worried about mercury back then. When thermometers broke, kids loved to roll the amazing silvery blobs around in boxes--or in their bare hands. Quicksilver was awesome to behold. Thrilling to touch. And incredibly toxic.

In the 1970s scientists finally began to research potential harm. By the 1990s, it was acknowledged that the mercurial antiseptics were extremely dangerous and should be withdrawn from the market. In response to the same research and a rising tide of complaints that thimerosal in infant and toddler vaccines might be making kids autistic, the Food & Drug Administration swept all but trace elements of himerosal from common vaccines--except for influenza.

The army of autism activists has since mushroomed as diagnoses of the neurological development disorder climbed to number more than 1% of all American kids and teens. The scientific establishment forcefully rejects any association with thimerosal; a simple argument is that if vaccines that contain mercury cause autism, the number of fresh cases ought to have dropped dramatically since 2002.

Is there another explanation? Dr. John J. Cannell of the Vitamin D Council has helped unearth, inspire, and conduct a lot of research into the benefits of Vitamin D--and the risks of not having enough of the powerful natural hormone. (I cite many of them in this entry from American Fever, my online novel about an H5N1 flu pandemic.)

In a paper published online in 2007, Cannell cited numerous examples of the benefits of Vitamin D exposure for pregnant women, including consumption of fish rich in it. And he details the breadth and cost of declining levels of Vitamin D in expectant mothers and other Americans since fear of skin cancer gripped the land.

It's just as possible that sunscreen--and sun avoidance--is causing far more harm than mercury ever did. Not to mention that Cannell thinks healthy Vitamin D levels might help protect against influenza.