Fears raised over preservative in vaccines
By Kimberly Atkins, Globe Correspondent, 7/17/2001
Lyn Redwood, a registered nurse, thought she was doing the right thing when
she took her healthy son, Will, to get vaccinated for measles and other
childhood diseases. But soon afterward, she saw a change in her 1-year-old.
''He lost speech,'' the Atlanta resident said of her son, now 7. ''He lost''
the ability to make ''eye contact.''
It was only after her son was diagnosed with a form of autism that she found
a Food and Drug Administration study warning that a preservative used in some
vaccines may have exposed children to levels of mercury higher than
recommended under federal guidelines. A check of her son's vaccine records
confirmed her fears: The vaccines contained the toxic ingredient, called
''My son had 125 times the allowable exposure in one day,'' she said,
referring to the maximum daily dosage for mercury exposure recommended by the
Environmental Protection Agency.
Redwood was one of more than a dozen parents of autistic children from around
the country who yesterday urged a committee from the Institute of Medicine to
oppose the use of any mercury compound as a preservative in vaccines. The
panel, a branch of the National Academy of Science, gathered at the Charles
Hotel in Cambridge to hear scientific testimony on the link between mercury
in vaccines and neurological problems in children.
Dangerous side effects from children's vaccines have long been a sensitive
subject for public health officials - and a parent's nightmare. While
vaccinations are responsible for the virtual elimination of such crippling
diseases as polio, in rare cases vaccinations themselves can cause severe,
even life-threatening reactions.
The form of mercury in vaccines and other medical products, thimerosal, has
been used as a preservative since the 1930s. Though mercury has long been
known to be a neurotoxin, vaccine makers and federal officials alike argued
that it was harmless in the small doses found in vaccines.
However, mercury in vaccines has been an issue of growing debate in recent
years as anecdotal evidence increasingly shows that some children develop
autism after receiving vaccinations for mumps, measles, and rubella as well
as hepatitis B. Though its causes are not well understood, the effects of
autism are quite clear: Sufferers have great difficulty in social
interactions and some can't even speak.
As a result, children's vaccines became part of the broader controversy over
mercury pollution in the environment. Because mercury is so toxic,
governments have pledged to virtually eliminate mercury emissions from power
plants and other sources, and states have warned children and young women to
limit consumption of freshwater fish because of their mercury content.
Against that backdrop, the US Public Health Service has recommended that the
use of thimerosal should be ''reduced or eliminated from vaccines as soon as
possible to minimize the exposure of infants and young children to mercury,''
said Dr. Bernard Schwetz, the agency's acting principal deputy commissioner.
In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of
Health have formed a scientific committee to study the health effects of
thimerosal more closely and recommend what more should be done to limit
''Parents research the best car seat to put their children in,'' said
Redwood, president of the Coalition for Sensible Action for Ending
Mercury-Induced Neurological Disorders. ''I want parents to know that they
have to research vaccines, too.''
Over the past year, the FDA has approved several thimerosal-free forms of
childhood vaccines, including a hepatitis B vaccine. In March, for example,
the FDA approved a low-thimerosal version of Tripedia, a vaccine against
diphtheria, tetanus toxoids, and acellular pertussis.
''Now, all routinely recommended pediatric vaccines will be available as
either completely thimerosal-free or without any significant amounts of
thimerosal,'' Schwetz said at the time.
But many other products contain the preservative - including children's nasal
drops, ear drops, and flu vaccines, said Dr. Jane M. El-Dahr, head of the
Pediatric Allergy, Immunity, and Rheumatology Section at Tulane University
Health Science Center, who was a speaker at yesterday's hearing.
''These products are sitting on the shelves'' in drugstores, El-Dahr said.
Sallie Bernard, executive director of Safe Minds, said that although the FDA
moved in the right direction by phasing out thimerosal in children's
vaccines, parents still need to beware, because it will take up to a year for
current stocks of vaccines with mercury to be used up.
She also said that a strong statement from the committee can have
far-reaching application. ''It's still in tetanus shots,'' she said of
thimerosal. ''It's still in many vaccines given to the elderly, to
children,'' groups that are at greatest risk of developing neurological
Most of the doctors and scientists who spoke at the hearing presented
evidence that showed at least a correlation between vaccines containing
mercury and the incidence of neurological disease. But since the sample of
autistic children in most of the studies was so small, and because of a
general lack of data, most specialists recommended more tests to conclusively
determine a scientific link.
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/17/2001.