The Precautionary Principle | Removing Thimerosal from Vaccines Hasn’t Made Them Safer
The war on science may soon include a war on vaccines. Donald Trump still publicly expresses the idea that vaccines are associated with autism, which is at odds with the conclusion of the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the NIH, and virtually every other scientific agency in every country that has studied vaccine safety.
Vaccine critic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced in a press conference on February 15, 2017, that he is talking with President Trump’s administration about forming a committee to look into vaccine safety. Since then, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has teamed up with celebrity Robert De Niro to issue a $100,000 challenge to prove that Thimerosal, a preservative in vaccines which was removed in 2001, is safe.
In a recent episode of Straight Talk MD, Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the advisory committee for Immunization Practices that decided to remove Thimerosal from vaccines, talks with Dr. Sweeny about this controversial preservative. In this snippet, Dr. Offit explains why the decision to remove Thimerosal from vaccines was made despite the fact that there is no evidence which suggests that it is harmful, and how this “precautionary measure” has only served to scare the public and put lives at risk.
“Bobby Kennedy today, in his press conference, is using the exact same theoretical argument about mercury in vaccines as Neal Halsey did back in 1999. You did a really great job of telling us how that transition occurred from taking out Thimerosal, and how, in actuality, it might not have been handled perfectly. It actually might have created some problems. Give us a little background on how that happened- How Halsey lead the charge to get Thimerosal out of vaccines and why.”
“I was actually on the advisory committee for Immunization Practices from between 1998 and 2003, so I got to watch this all up close and painfully, and basically what happened was that I think that Neal Halsey, through the American Academy of Pediatrics, was concerned that children were getting more vaccines, some of which contain preservatives. He was worried that this increasing levels of ethylmercury could do harm.
At the time there was a lot of information to suggest that this wasn’t a problem, which is to say ethylmercury, which is the preserve in vaccines, is not methylmercury, so its half-life is much shorter, so it doesn’t accumulate. That’s number one.
Number two is that if you compare the quantity of ethylmercury that the children were getting as compared to what they were getting from methylmercury from living on this planet, assuming you drink anything made from water on this planet including breast milk or infant formula, you’re going to be exposed to logarithmically more methylmercury, which is the kind that accumulates to much greater extent than ethylmercury. So it never made sense that it would be a problem.”
"If it doesn’t cause harm, then taking it out doesn't make it safer. It only makes it perceived to be safer, which is a very different thing. So we scared people, and we scared doctors, and we scared nurses..."
“Still, Halsey was worried. He essentially said that if the Public Health Service didn’t do something he was going to make a ruckus. So the Public Health Service tried to mediate. Roger Bernier was the name of the guy who did this. He tried to sort of steer the ship between these two organizations, which is to say the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to find a safe landing and he basically sold science out.
You know science is not terribly politically correct. It’s either right or you’re wrong. This isn’t religion or politics or philosophy. There’s not two sides to every story, and so what we did was we exercised, and I put this in quotes, ‘the precautionary principle,’ thinking, ‘Ok, what could be possibly be the harm of scaring the hell out of parents about thimerosal?’
The statement was, although all the evidence to date doesn’t doesn’t show that thimerosal at the level contained in vaccines is harmful, to make safe vaccines even safer we’re going to take it out.
But, if it doesn’t cause harm, then taking it out doesn’t make it safer. It only makes it perceived to be safer, which is a very different thing. So we scared people, and we scared doctors, and we scared nurses, and we scared nurse practitioners to the extent that there were some children who were born to mothers who had hepatitis B, who were therefore at risk of severe hepatitis B, where the nursery had basically suspended using the hepatitis B vaccine because we’d given thimerosal a scarlet letter. They didn’t get the vaccine and died as a consequence.
That’s not the Precautionary Principle. The Precautionary Principle means you exercise caution absent harm. We caused harm. So this wasn’t the Precautionary Principle. We basically just substituted a real risk for a theoretical risk.”