It's a question that has divided doctors, parents and
government scientists for more than a decade: Do childhood
vaccines or additives cause neurological damage?
Next month, a congressional committee will hear
testimony on the subject. A California university has a
huge government grant to research it.
And the possible link has been the focus of a
three-month News 8 Investigation.
center of the investigation: a preservative put into many
vaccines. It's called Thimerosal, and it's made from
mercury, the second most toxic metal known to man. Uranium
is the most toxic.
For years, Thimerosal has been extremely controversial
because there were alternatives to preventing vaccine
contamination. And, questions remain about how
pharmaceutical companies conduct vaccine research and how
the government regulates those companies.
Centuries ago, the shimmering properties of mercury
captivated the philosopher Aristotle, who called it
"quicksilver" - and the name stuck.
Perhaps the best visual example of what low-levels of
mercury can do to the brain is seen in a videotaped
experiment by scientists at the University of Calgary.
"Over the next thirty minutes, the neurite
membrane underwent rapid degeneration, leaving behind the
denuded neurofibrils seen here," the narration on the
tape said. "In contrast, other heavy metals added to
this concentration - such as aluminum, lead, cadmium and
manganese - did not produce this effect."
Starting in the early nineties, government regulators
dramatically increased the amount of Thimerosal exposure
to babies by adding two new vaccines to the roster of
mandatory immunizations children must have before
enrolling in school.
The combination of the Hepatitis B vaccine and the HiB
vaccine more than doubled the amount of mercury children
like Jac Counter received before the age of two.
Jack's parents say today, at age five, he has been
diagnosed as having "mercury-induced autism".
"If you take a ten-pound baby in, and it gets four
shots on that one day, which is a common practice - that's
equivalent to giving a 100-pound person forty shots in one
day," said mercury expert Dr. Boyd Haley.
Haley has testified before Congress and the Pentagon as
one of the nation's leading experts on Thimerosal and
mercury poisoning. The research he's done at the
University of Kentucky leads him to believe that some
children are genetically predisposed to storing mercury in
It's the cummulative effect of the mercury which Haley
and other scientists say leads to neurological disorders,
However, members of the government's vaccine
committees, like Dr. Jane Siegel, insist the proof isn't
Under pressure from the American Academy of Pediatrics,
these government committees ordered pharmaceutical
companies to stop putting Thimerosal in vaccines by March
"The topic was researched, it was reviewed, (with)
no data to prove a causitive role," Siegel said.
"Nevertheless, a call for Thimerosal removal was
made. Within two months of the publication of that
statement, the Hepatitis B vaccine for infants was free of
Thimerosal. Within 18 months, there was on the market all
"I think this is an incredible achievement."
But did the government really move fast enough to
protect America's children? After all, Thimerosal had been
used in vaccines since the 1930s.
Documents obtained in a lawsuit show that the
government began asking questions about the compound's
saftey in 1972. Eli Lilly, which holds the patent on
Thimerosal, assured the FDA in a report that "a
series of 22 human subjects" were injected with a
one-percent solution "without ill effect".
Attorney Andy Waters said what the pharmaceutical giant
concealed from the government is that the tests were
conducted in 1929 by a young researcher named K.C.
Smithburn - on patients dying of mennigitis.
"It's apparent that Lilly didn't want to do the
study themselves because it's apparent that there were
enormous ethical problems with injecting people - even
people dying of meningitis - with mercury," Waters
said. "What Smithburn did was wrong, because he
agreed to do the study for Lilly, and not only did he
agree to do it, but he agreed to give them results that he
knew were flawed.
"They knew, and he knew, (the results) were going
to be published as the truth."
The FDA questioned Thimerosal's safety again in 1982 -
this time, noting that it was "not safe for
'over-the-counter' topical use because of its potential
for cell damage". Despite that evidence, however, the
government regulatory committees did nothing to question
its use in childhood vaccines.
Meanwhile, measures were taken to remove the compound
from pet innoculations. More internal company documents
and memos show that Eli Lilly began revising its claims
about Thimerosal starting in the 1960s, changing package
inserts from stating "non-toxic" to
"non-irritating to body to issue".
Then, in November 1973, the company's legal division
suggested adding the statement: "Do not use when
aluminum may come in contact with treated skin".
Aluminum is a compound added to many vaccines as a
catalyst. But even with this warning, the government
committees did nothing.
Haley said any good biochemist knows that Thimerosal
and aluminum react dangerously when combined together.
He showed News 8 the results of his experiments on
human brain neurons.
"If we add this level of aluminum that we see very
little toxicity with to this level of Thimerosal, we get
this bottom line ... indicating that we have dramatically
enhanced the toxicity, where within 24 hours essentially
all of the neurons are dead," Haley said.
Officials at Eli Lilly declined to interview with News
8. However, they did send an e-mail, which said in part
that the company's "primary concern is for patient
safety". The e-mail also stated that "Lilly
discontinued its sale or use of (Thimerosal) about ten
However, that did not stop other pharmaceutical
companies from taking over the production of the vaccine
In December 1999, shortly before Eli Lilly quit
producing thimerosal, the company changed its packaging
insert again. This time, Lilly warned that Thimerosal was
"toxic". Additionally, it stated that effects of
exposure may include "fetal changes, decreased
offspring survival, and lung tissue changes".
However, the government's vaccine committee continues
to insist that Thimerosal has never been dangerous to
So, the 1999 Eli Lilly package insert was shown to Dr.
Jane Siegel for her reaction:
"I cannot comment on this unless I have
clarification," Siegel said. "You will have to
interview the public. I don't know - I just know that if
you show me this piece of paper I cannot make a comment on
this - I find it uninterpretable."
Haley said the government should have taken action.
"There should have been an immediate recall of the
vaccine," Haley said. "We would do that with an
automobile if it had a bad brake system. If we just
suspected it had a bad brake system, they would do that.
The government has no problems - they'd do it
The congressional hearing on the use of Thimerosal in
vaccines begins in June. While production of the
preservative was stopped a year ago, as Dr. Haley pointed
out, existing doses were not recalled.
Now, it needs to be re-stated that the easiest solution
for parents who are concerned about upcoming immunizations
is to simply ask your doctor in advance for