It's the Best of Times to Scare Yourself to Death

Today is a good time to be alive when compared to any in human history, such as 100 years ago, when the average life span in industrial countries was about 50. As one recent science article noted,

the key in driving up our collective age lies with the advent of medical technologies, improved nutrition, higher education, better housing and several other improvements to the overall standards of living.

Although our improved health and longevity are due to science, we moderns in the industrial world increasingly blame diseases (some that are wholly psychosomatic) on technologies that we owe our less-diseased, better-living lives to. What many of us are most afflicted with today are assorted fears and dreads stemming from the very advances that have made us the wealthiest, healthiest humans of all time.

Perhaps the only thing that doesn’t give us cancer is irony.

Some of us, for example, are being made sick by wind turbines. Others by overhead powerlines and WiFi signals. (Is your cell phone killing you?  Are your brains being fried by electrosmog?) Many attribute all manner of diseases to genetically modified foods or to chemical compounds used in plastics and furniture. (What is your body burden? Did you know that your couch may be killing you.) The media, thanks to crusading journalists and activists and influential pundits, fan these fears. My newest all-time favorite headline is from a Reuters story that appeared earlier this year in Canada’s National Post:

Everyday life may kill us: Chemicals in household goods linked to cancer, diabetes, asthma and birth defects: UN study

One recent study has gone so far as to ask:

Are media warnings about the adverse health effects of modern life self-fulfilling?

The tragedy of all this mass hysteria is when real medical (and complex) disorders, such as autism, get woven into these emotionally-laden narratives of environmental contaminants. A double tragedy of this particular one involving autism is that it has had public health ramifications. People have come to mistakenly believe that childhood vaccines can trigger the onset of autism, when there is no legitimate evidence for this. Those who still fervently believe this have focused on one specific vaccine ingredient–a preservative called thimerosal. But as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes on its website:

in 2001 thimerosal was removed or reduced to trace amounts in all childhood vaccines except for one type of influenza vaccine, and thimerosal-free alternatives are available for influenza vaccine. Evidence from several studies examining trends in vaccine use and changes in autism frequency does not support such an association between thimerosal and autism. Furthermore, a scientific review by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded that “the evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal–containing vaccines and autism.” CDC supports the IOM conclusion that there is no relationship between vaccines containing thimerosal and autism rates in children.

I mention this because I recently wrote a post that was highly critical of Robert Kennedy Jr., who does not accept this explanation by the CDC. He continues to believe that there is a connection between autism and thimerosal. He continues to believe that medical authorities are hiding the true facts, a case he attempted to make in his controversial 2005 Rolling Stone story. That piece was harshly criticized for its scare-mongering and for various inaccuracies and was eventually removed by Salon, which had co-published it.

Kennedy, however, still stands firmly behind it. And he believes he will be vindicated by a book he commissioned to examine the supposed links between thimerosal and autism. I know this because shortly after my post on Kennedy appeared, he called me to say that the CDC and I were wrong and that there was essentially a huge cover-up about the autism/vaccine connection.

I had never spoken with Robert Kennedy Jr. before and only know of him through his environmental advocacy and many articles. And even during his phone call to me, I didn’t actually have a conversation with him, because he pretty much talked non-stop for over an hour. The few times I did get a word in I had to loudly interrupt him, which led my wife, who came home towards the end of the call, and who didn’t know who I was speaking with, to ask after I hung up the phone: “Who were you shouting at?”

In truth, our exchange was cordial, despite my fundamental disagreement with Kennedy. But it was a mighty perplexing and to be frank, disheartening conversation. After I pointed out a second time that scientists haven’t found any causal link between autism and thimerosal in vaccines, he responded:

That’s true that regulatory scientists are saying that. But not the research scientists. I can show you paper after paper in the most respected peer review journals, and all them are gasping, “why is this stuff still available’?

He told me that the book he commissioned has a chapter “we were going to leave out, because it’s so controversial, but the evidence is so strong that thimerosal causes autism,” that he’s keeping it in.

Yet in the next breath he said he wasn’t going to publish the book (even though it has a publisher and is going through edits right now) because it is so explosive that he doesn’t want it to prompt a mass panic: “I don’t want parents to stop vaccinating their kids.” (“I’m pro-vaccine,” he insisted several times during the call.) I tell Kennedy that if he feels he’s marshaled compelling evidence showing a link between thimerosal and autism, then he has a responsibility to show it and not merely expect people to take his word for it. I certainly am not. I also suspect that Kennedy is as objective and open-minded on this issue as Marc Morano is on climate change.

Still, he promised to share the manuscript with me once it’s done being edited. I tell him that I’m dubious about what he’s found but that I’ll reserve judgement until after I read it. He says he spent $100,000 on the research and writing for the book and $100,000 to have it fact-checked. “Anybody who reads it will say, ‘what the fuck are we doing? We’re poisoning an entire generation.'”

If Kennedy feels that strongly, he should release the book. Let the scientific press and experts examine it. Until he does this, he should stop peddling conspiracy theories and whipping up the anti-vaccine crowd with Nazi analogies.

It’s also time the rest of us stopped scaring ourselves to death about the trace amounts of chemicals in our everyday lives, of which by the standards of our grandparents or great-grandparents, are pretty damn good.

UPDATE: It turns out that Laura Helmuth, the science and health editor at Slate, recently had one helluva phone conversation with Robert Kennedy Jr., too.

27 Responses to “It's the Best of Times to Scare Yourself to Death”

  1. mem_somerville says:

    Can we maybe get the NSA copy of that call? I’d love to hear that one…

    Someone over at Slate’s comments crystallized what I was thinking on this:

    “He said Kennedy wanted to speak to Plait or me; I requested comments or corrections in writing; we went back and forth.”

    My experience is that people who avoid putting their facts and reasons in writing are usually hoping to persuade their audience with their
    personality and emotion, which is a polite way of saying they are con

    But that phone call is bananas. I cringed reading both accounts. And if this is happening to more than just you–it’s not personal to you: it’s a pattern, not a fluke.Very sad.

  2. harrywr2 says:

    Austism, as with any debilitating childhood illness creates a substantial financial strain on the families involved.

    In the US…we have a compensation program for those people who suffer from the known side effects of various vaccines.

    Many vaccines carry side effect risks that we accept as a society and compensate those who ‘draw the short straw’ so to speak.

    If austism is caused by vaccines then the families of the autistic children would be entitled to just compensation from the Federal Government.

    I’m pretty sure all politicians become obtuse when the facts get in the way of providing financial benefit to a favored constituency.

  3. Jay Currie says:

    Of course, Morano has the advantage of having an increasing body of science on his side, RFK Jr, not so much.

  4. Matt B says:

    Good catch Harry! I never heard of this program…….This can explain some of the nuttiness from folks that ordinarily you would think had more sense……….

  5. Buddy199 says:

    High-functioning delusional disorder, paranoid subtype.

  6. jh says:

    Does Kennedy make his money the same way Bill McKibben does?

  7. Matthew Cline says:

    “Yet in the next breath he said he wasn’t going to publish the book (even though it has a publisher and is going through edits right now) because it is so explosive that he doesn’t want it to prompt a mass panic:”

    What? That sounds like the sort of excuse that a huckster would use, but he’s so passionate it about it, so I don’t think he’s lying. I can’t make any sense of it.

  8. Elizabeth Cowcill says:

    I have a son with a form of Autism whom is an adult now, he is making his way in life and says that,he is as he is and finding someone to blame wont change things..
    People just need to accept there are people out there whom are different and perhaps learn more about their condition/challenge so they understand.
    I agree that there are many thing we need to learn in order to make the world a better and safer place .
    Basically there are risks in life’s journey everyday and if we just worry about them we are missing out on enjoying life along the way.

  9. bobito says:

    I wouldn’t worry too much about it. What is worse “poisoning an entire generation” or “a mass panic”. If he really believes that we are “poisoning an entire generation”, then a “mass panic” seems the lesser of two evils.

  10. Josh Mazer says:

    May, 16, 2013 The British Medical Journal published the following about CDC vaccine policy and policy makers:

    The CDC pledges “To base all public
    health decisions on the highest quality scientific data, openly and
    objectively derived.” But Peter Doshi argues that in the case of influenza vaccinations and their marketing, this is not so

    of influenza vaccines is one of the most visible and aggressive public
    health policies today. Twenty years ago, in 1990, 32 million doses of
    influenza vaccine were available in the United States. Today around 135
    million doses of influenza vaccine annually enter the US market, with
    vaccinations administered in drug stores, supermarkets—even some
    drive-throughs. This enormous growth has not been fueled by popular
    demand but instead by a public health campaign that delivers a
    straightforward, who-in-their-right-mind-could-possibly-disagree
    message: influenza is a serious disease, we are all at risk of
    complications from influenza, the flu shot is virtually risk free, and
    vaccination saves lives. Through this lens, the lack of influenza
    vaccine availability for all 315 million US citizens seems to border on
    the unethical. Yet across the country, mandatory influenza vaccination
    policies have cropped up, particularly in healthcare facilities,1 precisely because not everyone wants the vaccination, and compulsion appears the only way to achieve high vaccination rates.2
    Closer examination of influenza vaccine policies shows that although
    proponents employ the rhetoric of science, the studies underlying the
    policy are often of low quality, and do not substantiate officials’
    claims. The vaccine might be less beneficial and less safe than has been
    claimed, and the threat of influenza appears overstated.”

    Here is the citation:

    Since BMJ represents the consensus opinion of evidence based medicine, can we expect an article from Discover debunking Brit5ish Medical Journal’s statement that CDC vaccine policy officials, and the enabling medical kommentariat, are: inept; “disease mongering,” and lying about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines?

    Why should I trust a single word put out by CDC, why should you take CDC word for anything vaccine related, after this devastating, extensively footnoted, article in the British Medical Journal?

  11. jh says:

    Speaking of (supposed to be) scary, Trenberth is here in Seattle tonight with Revkin and Alley presenting:

    “Our 11th Hour: Straight Talk on Climate Change from People Who

    Really? The “11th Hour”? And is this really “straight talk”? I’m not sure I’d classify Trenberth among “people who know” given that he’s as surprised as anyone by the now infamous pause. I believe Trenberth was among the first out of the gate claiming that Katrina was caused by AGW, a mostly debunked claim. But that didn’t stop him from claiming that Sandy was also caused by global warming – also fairly well debunked.

    And what’s Revkin doing in this circus? I respect the guy although I disagree with his views. But he ain’t no scientist. Are reporters “people who know”?

    Keith, would you do a similar gig on GMOs? Or would you leave it to the people who really do know?

    Whatever they’re serving up, they’ll have a hungry crowd here in Seattle, ready to eat up anything they dish out that’s anti industry (except the software industry).

  12. jh says:

    Good that your son is making his way. I wish him the best.

    From what I’ve read, it seems that there is substantial progress on understanding aspects of the spectrum and how to treat it, especially for children. I’m no expert on the topic. But from the modest knowledge I’ve assembled, it seems to me that there is a tremendous lag – perhaps decades or more – between what’s coming out of the cutting edge research community and what’s happening in people’s lives that are affected by the problem.

    The flack that people like Kennedy expel is one of the biggest problems.

  13. Anne Dachel says:

    I wrote this in response to what was said about RFK Jr. on

    It’s time to stop pretending that Kennedy is the only person who sees something is wrong with our out-of-control vaccine schedule.
    Anne Dachel, Media editor: Age of Autism

  14. victorpavlovic says:

    I like to blame the SOB’s for giving my son autism via vaccination, I am not interested in all the fake science that claims there is no link, thousands of parents can’t be wrong witnessing regression after vaccination, remember vioxx was safe, lipitor was safe, bextra was safe and countless other drugs were safe until one day they weren’t, yet they were recommended by your doctor who gets his advice from the drug companies, just as in the 1950’s doctor’s were saying cigarette smoking was safe and even advertised for them their favorite brands, guess who they got their safety information from then, Big Tobacco science, and that’s the science that we use for vaccines today, fake to prove safety, and yet just the opposite is true!

  15. Jackie Martin-Sebell says:

    You’re right, there is a compensation program. Do a little research and you’ll learn there have been several children (in the 80’s last I checked) who have been compensated because their vaccine caused or triggered their autism. Most still sit awaiting their day in court.

  16. Jens_disqussion says:

    This program protects vaccine manufacturers and administrators from liability and is the main reason, I believe, the current U.S. infant vaccine schedule is approximately 3 times more expansive and accelerated in exposure than prior to the The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act (NCVIA) of 1986. Constitutional checks protecting the rights of the vaccine injured have been removed. Essentially they are left to petition the government to decide if they were injured by a vaccine the government “recommended,” and then the government decides what, if any, compensation with be made.

    A comparison of the schedule in 1983 vs. today:

  17. Cherry Misra says:

    Sorry guys- Kennedy is right. I run a nursery school in New Delhi and see about 70 kids a year. I watched as autism first emerged in India in the late 90’s and saw it surge after year 2000, when the pediatricians added many new mercury-laden vaccines to the vaccine schedule. Now Im watching the autism rate decline rapidly, as most pediatricians in my area change to imported vaccines with less or no mercury. Sure, there are still one or two diehard pediatricians who still provide us with a few cases of speech delay and mild symptoms of autism. You see when you inject billions of atoms of mercury- an extremely toxic substance into an organism that does not like having those atoms in its tissues (a human baby)- it would be really surprising if something DID NOT happen. That is real science as compared to the McScience of the IOM , which dismissed all the 90 peer reviewed research papers which showed that mercury is an extremely toxic substance to every living tissue .

  18. DrXym says:

    If there is observable increase / decrease in diagnoses then it is a matter for the pediatricians in your area to compile a study (to the appropriate level of academic rigour) to demonstrate it and its correlation to vaccine at the time. Anecdotes simply don’t cut it I’m afraid.

  19. DrXym says:

    And what lead you to blame vaccination as opposed to the myriad of other things that your child came into contact with every day of their life? Or their biological predisposition to the condition? Or their prenatal development?

    You see, it’s very easy to say “vaccines cause autism” but it helps a lot to have concrete high quality evidence instead of a gut feeling when reaching for that conclusion. While Andrew Wakefield proved to be a scientific fraud, he still had one “positive” effective of kicking off a large number of high quality studies looking for a link to autism and vaccines. No link was found. At this point it is the default position to assume that is because there is no link.

  20. Deserttrek says:

    anything from any kennedy is bs. this clown should be removed from the public

  21. Norbrook says:

    Since the vaccines given to children aren’t “mercury laden” since 2000, obviously using your anecdotal information, mercury in the vaccines was preventing autism.

    After all, that’s what your data is saying, right?

  22. jh says:

    “when you inject billions of atoms of mercury- an extremely toxic
    substance into an organism…it would be really surprising if something DID NOT happen.”

    Um, “billions” of atoms of anything isn’t very many. A mole of HgS (for example) weighs 232g and has 10^26 atoms. A billion atoms of HgS amounts to 2.32×10^-17 grams or 2.32 billionths of a microgram.

  23. First Officer says:

    Your story about autism occuring after vaccination reminds me of the rooster who concluded he made the sun rise by crowing at the right time.
    By the way, from people i know that suffer from arthritis, they’d take vioxx in a heartbeat if that meant the end of their pain, regardless of its increased heart attack risk. There are countless of other drugs that did and do what they were advertised at the risks stated, saving countless lives, rescuing countless others from pain and debilitation. We don’t have smallpox to kick around anymore and soon polio will join it.

  24. victorpavlovic says:

    No Mercury in flu shots? think again.

  25. Norbrook says:

    Not in the single dose shots. In multi-dose vials, a small amount of thimerosal is used as a preservative.

    In case you’re wondering, it breaks down to ethyl mercury, which is rapidly excreted from the body. Methyl mercury is the form that bioaccumulates. Oh, and BTW, there used to be much more mercury given to children – a mercury compound was used as a “teething aid” up until the 50’s. Using that figure, along with reduced environmental exposures, one would expect the “harm” to drop drastically over the past 15 years, wouldn’t you. Unless you’re an anti-vaxxer clinging to some excuse.

  26. victorpavlovic says:

    Mercury is Mercury, and can be toxic to humans in any amounts, there is no excuse for Mercury to be in ‘Any’ vaccines.

  27. Norbrook says:

    No, “mercury is not mercury” idiot. The form counts.

    Here’s a different example: You know what an “aldehyde” is? It’s a chemical. Formaldehyde is toxic. (one carbon) “Acetaldehyde” (two carbons) isn’t all that toxic, is produced as part of various reactions and the body has way of handling it. There’s also the part about “dose+duration” as a function of toxicity. Mercury in the amounts found in any vaccine is well below any toxicity level (dose), and since it’s a form which is rapidly excreted, it’s not around long enough to matter anyway.

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