As a journalist by profession - and temperament- I have spent far more time writing about protests than joining them. But on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., I marched with a crowd - one of thousands - held a sign, chanted, even wore an angry tee-shirt. As a finale, I stomped off to see a powerful, long-term congressman whom I first met when I worked as a newspaper reporter.
Barbara Fischkin, left, with Lujene Clark, a parent activist and founder of No Mercury, Photo by Christine Heeren of Lighthouse Studios
Years ago I used to ask him questions and wait for answers, but time and children change things. Now he had agreed to be the one to listen.
"I am here because federal health officials are involved in a major conflict of interest," I told Congressman Gary Ackerman. "And they're still making kids sick because of it."
At that I knew I had his attention. Even if he wasn't buying it right away, he would think about it.
"Maybe this is what happened to my kid, too," I said. "Maybe it isn't. But maybe someone should check. Someone with good science and no agenda."
The congressman nodded. He's a Democrat from Queens, New York and a foreign affairs expert, but one who also understands what I call "the war at home." He's fought for immigrants and AIDS babies and kids with autism, too.
"It's as simple as Investigative Reporting 101," I said, remembering the reporter I used to be. "The Centers for Disease Control are supposed to promote vaccinations. But they are also supposed to check on vaccine safety. You can't promote the same thing you are monitoring."
As the congressman listened, alarms went off in the Rayburn, the congressional office building. An announcement urged everyone to stay inside: tornado warnings.
I knew that Congressman Ackerman had already taken a step farther than most by co-sponsoring the Mercury-Free Vaccines Act of 2007 - a bill that never made it into the Senate. The bill notes what quickie news reports about this complicated issue often miss. That kids could still get sick because while mercury is out of childhood vaccinations it remains in other vaccinations including those for flu which are routinely given to women of childbearing age, pregnant women and, yes, children. Nobody really knows how much mercury is too much for each individual.
An hour earlier in at that rally in front of the Capitol, Robert Kennedy Jr., the renowned environmental activist, had explained, with his family's signature passion and flair, that an amount equivalent to 60 percent of the mercury the CDC took out of childhood vaccines is still in flu shots. "That's the Thimerosal generation," Kennedy had told the crowd at the rally after Wednesday's march, as loud, angry cheers filled the air. "That's the vaccine generation and it's the sickest generation in the history of this country."
Outside Rayburn now, the rain still poured, although the next announcement said it was safe to leave the building. Congressman Ackerman, on his way to the floor to vote, urged me to take a train instead of a plane back to New York. I didn't listen to him and sat inside a jet at National Airport for hours which gave me plenty of time to reflect on what I had just done: Why I had marched?
The obvious, quick answer is that I marched on Washington this week for all the kids. I marched because I believe that the mercury preservative in vaccinations - vaccinations that are supposed to protect kids from diseases - have also made many of them very sick. It's a long complicated tale that begins in the late 1980s when babies and toddlers started to get many more vaccinations than they had in years past and hence way too much mercury. Given that mercury is still in those flu shots, and in other vaccinations it's sad but not surprising that the autism epidemic of recent years may indeed be getting worse. One in 150 children are now diagnosed with this biological illness; in New Jersey, the numbers are now 1 in 6o for boys. Autism causes communication, behavioral and social deficits. In the worst cases that can mean no speech, no toilet training and aggressive and self-injurious behaviors
I wish I could say this is the whole story. But the tale of mercury and why it and/or other toxic ingredients in vaccines could be causing this epidemic has as many zigs and zags as a kid with autism who has "eloped" from his parent's watchful eye. Click here for Autism One which has the most comprehensive video coverage of Green the Vaccines march and rally that drew thousands to Washington. Or read about the group Talk About Curing Autism, which led this march with autism mom and actress Jenny McCarthy at the helm, along with her partner, the actor Jim Carrey. Or visit NoMercury.org.
As for our family's story, it has its own zigs and zags too.
My older son, Dan, now 20, has had autism since he was three and a half. That's when he stopped talking and in many other ways fell apart. Something in the environment poisoned him. I suspected this, deeply, when it first happened, but back then there was nowhere to go with such information. Still, how else do you explain why, over a few months, and without any obvious provocation, a bright, happy kid who could switch between three or four languages became mute, "weird," sick to his stomach and unable to learn at anything faster than a snail's pace? How else do you explain that, as the years passed, the old Dan did not return?
Nobody really could explain it.
So for a long time, I let the idea of a cure rest. My husband and I put our energy into making Danny's school program as good as it could be for a kid so severely injured.
Then, about two years ago, prompted by some younger mothers, I started to read about mercury poisoning and other environmental toxins and about kids who were getting better by cleaning those toxins out.
Dan had spent two years of his life in Hong Kong, where we were foreign correspondents. As a toddler he loved to order raw jellyfish whenever we took him out to lunch or dinner. In a great, kid-friendly city like Hong Kong that happened often. Sometimes he'd say a word or two of greeting in Cantonese. Perhaps what he said in Chinese was "Please serve me some mercury."
And perhaps what he also got in Hong Kong or in Mexico City was a dumped vaccine from America, that had accidentally gotten too much mercury in it. "Hot Lots" are what they now call them.
Like autism, like the mercury story, this is only the tip of our iceberg too.
Late last year we took our son to a doctor who treats environmental toxicity and slowly as he gets cleaned out he is making progress, taking new steps. Literal steps. We can ask him to go upstairs and get his shoes on and he does. We don't have to follow him to the closet to make sure he gets there and gets it done.
He used to have eight bowel movements a day. Since he started treatment he usually has one or two. He seems more focused. His pediatrician who has known him since he was diagnosed saw him earlier this month for his yearly check-up and pronounced him "a different child."
We still don't know if he was mercury poisoned. But also can't tell if he wasn't. All we know is that we are on the way to finding out and the most important question I have for this new doctor is always the same one: What do we do next?
It is also one of the questions I have for our government.
I'd also like to ask them how we do it, so that the results are not as tainted as our children's insides.
Barbara Fischkin is the author of Confidential Sources.