SafeMinds tries to frighten pregnant women into skipping the flu vaccine

As I said yesterday, it’s time to take a break from blogging about Stanislaw Burzynski; that is, unless something new happens that I consider to be worth commenting on. Fear not, though. I will return to the subject. As I said yesterday, Burzynski is now pushing some sort of nonstandard “personalized gene-targeted therapy” in addition to his antineoplaston therapy.

In the meantime, it’s back to business. I’m a bit tired, but I’m (almost) never too tired to analyze a claim made by a supporter of pseudoscience.

Amazingly, sometimes the gods of the blogosphere are kind and benevolent. They provide. In this case, they provided perfect blog fodder in the form of an e-mail from one of the many crank e-mail lists I subscribe to as a ready source of blogging material. This time, the fodder came from the anti-vaccine crank group SafeMinds. (I bet you thought I was going to say Age of Autism, didn’t you?) The e-mail read:

SafeMinds Launches Flu Vaccine Campaign Aimed at OB/GYNs

Interested in spreading the word about the danger of flu vaccines containing thimerosal to pregnant women and children? SafeMinds is launching a campaign aimed at OB/GYNs. Sign up for a tool kit to present to your physician by e-mailing here. View our OB/GYN Flu Campaign Video below or click here to watch.

The video is here:

The video features a woman named Dr. Cindy Schneider, who is listed as the medical advisor for SafeMinds. She narrates the video as though she’s sleepwalking through it, starting out by saying that her video is directed at her fellow obstetricians because of their shared interest in the health of pregnant women and their desire to “insure that pregnant women avoid exposure to mercury.” What could be nicer and more caring? How nice of her! Of course, anyone familiar with SafeMinds and other anti-vaccine groups knows exactly what’s coming next, and Dr. Schneider doesn’t disappoint–eventually. First, she has to go on and on about how “even most obstetricians” don’t know about the source of mercury that she’s about to reveal to a waiting world. You and I know what that source supposedly is, and it’s not long in coming.

Yep, it’s the flu vaccine. Surprise, surprise.

Dr. Schneider starts out by opining:

In my experience, most physicians are under the impression that mercury is no longer present in vaccines. While this is true for some immunizations, as of the 2010-2011 flu season, most influenza vaccines still contain mercury in the form of the preservative thimerosal.

Naturally, while Dr. Schneider is talking, there are shots of lists of vaccines that culminate in a picture of a label from a chemical bottle containing thimerosal:


Note the skull in the lower right hand corner with the words “very toxic” underneath it. I have to hand it to SafeMinds; whoever put this video together actually had the self-restraint not to zero in on that skull and crossbones and slap a circle around the words “very toxic.” Yes, I suppose that this qualifies as subtlety in anti-vaccine circles. Compared to most of the bloggers at AoA, for instance, I’m amazed at the level of restraint SafeMinds has been able to muster in the first 40 seconds of the video.

It doesn’t last, of course.

Up next comes the scary claims about how some vaccines contain up to 250x the levels of mercury identified by the EPA as HAZARDOUS WASTE. It’s a profoundly silly claim that is utterly meaningless, because it’s not the “levels” (i.e., the concentration) of mercury that matters in determining whether something qualifies as hazardous waste. For example, this chart shows what the EPA recommends regarding mercury concentrations in various types of water, and for water in general is 200 mg/L. Thimerosal-containing flu vaccines generally don’t contain more than 0.01% Thimerosal (one part per 10,000). Given that thimerosal is approximately 50% mercury by weight, that means that a 0.01% solution of thimerosal contains 50 µg of Hg per 1 mL dose or 25 µg of Hg per 0.5 mL dose. The concentration in solution is thus 50 µg/ml, or 50 mg/L, which is indeed 250 times 0.2 mg/L. Does any of this mean that thimerosal is dangerous to mother or baby? No, because the total dose is no more than 25 µg, which is a very small amount. Wow! Why on earth would you want to inject toxic waste into your body? The “250x the level of mercury that the EPA considers toxic waste” bit sure does sound scary if you don’t know enough about chemistry to realize how ridiculous it is. A particularly amusing touch (to me at least) is how SafeMinds recommends that you return unused flu vaccines to the manufacturerer for safe disposal. Oooh! Scary! Too bad the regulation shown on the screen at the time says that vaccines returned this way are not regulated as hazardous waste. So which is it? Are vaccines hazardous waste or not. It’s so confusing.

SafeMinds is either utterly contemptuous of its audience’s intelligence and education, or it is ignorant enough itself to fall for this nonsense.

The next part of the video starts out claiming that one in six women already have absorbed enough mercury to have high levels of mercury in their body. I have no idea where that figure came from; so I Googled it. It turns out that it’s a commonly parroted figure that derives apparently from a CDC study described in this NYT article. If you look at how the EPA actually developed its “reference dose” for a level of mercury that is highly unlikely to cause harm, it becomes obvious that this part of the SafeMinds video is also a load of fetid dingo’s kidneys. Here’s an article that explains it. Basically, the EPA used data from three large longitudinal cohort studies of the neuropsychological consequences of in utero exposure to methylmercury, including the Faroe Islands and the Seychelles Islands. The EPA then applied a “total uncertainty factor” of 10, which basically means that they divided the figure they got for a safe level of mercury in the blood by ten and used that as the “reference dose.” In other words, the EPA built in a ten-fold margin of safety into its reference dose for mercury. Why the number ten? Who knows? Also, this reference level is for methyl mercury, not ethyl mercury (which is what thimerosal is). It turns out that this reference level is 5.8 µg/L, which is a very low level. Far be it for me to try to claim that mercury isn’t a concern, but this gets ridiculous, particularly given the small amounts of mercury in vaccines.

Not that any of this stops SafeMinds from saying something that sounds on the surface reasonable (it’s a good idea to reduce mercury exposure). There’s just one problem. The words show up over pictures of fish, chemical plants, and dental work. So I guess that vaccines are just like mercury-laden fish or disgusting chemical plants. And the picture of dental work is way off, given that there is no evidence that mercury amalgams are harmful. Nor does it stop Dr. Schneider from pointing out that the CDC banned thimerosal in childhood vaccines in 1999 but that half of the flu vaccines still have thimerosal in it. Of course, there’s a huge difference between children and adults with respect to sensitivity to mercury exposure. For one things, the nervous systems of adults are done developing. For another thing, adults weigh a lot more, making the small amount of mercury in the flu vaccine much less on a per-kg basis. Particularly disingenous is the part where Dr. Schneider intones that, based on EPA reference doses, a 68 kg woman should not receive more than 6.8 µg mercury a day. Oh, no! The amount of mercury in vaccines is three times that! Horrors! Well, not really. That dose of 0.1 µg/kg per day is meant as an average, chronic dose. A single dose greater than that is not dangerous. It’s another common scare tactic that the antivaccine movement likes to use.

The rest of the video is a litany of common anti-vaccine canards, including a quick listing of famous bad studies that anti-vaccinationists like to trot out to try to make their case that vaccines are evil health hazards. I tried to look one of these up, the review article by J. G. Dorea, but unfortunately my university doesn’t have an online subscription to that journal. Oh, well, it looked as though it reviewed studies such as the infamous “monkey business” study. I also know that this article is probably overly credulous in that apparently a major concern listed is that many vaccines contain both thimerosal and the dreaded aluminum as an adjuvant.

In the end, SafeMinds has a fair amount of chutzpah in that it concludes a video directed at physicians with a plea to visit its website for information on vaccines. I would hope that a physician would be able to figure out that the information on SafeMinds is pure antivaccine pseudoscience, but I’m not so sure anymore. After all, there are doctors like Dr. Schneider, Dr. Jay Gordon, and other doctors ranging from the merely credulous about anti-vaccine arguments to being pure anti-vaccine themselves. That’s why I’m no longer as confident as I once was that physicians will recognize the plea at the end that SafeMinds is all about “vaccine safety” for what it is: Pure. B.S.

Dr. Schneider does say one thing that I believe to be the truth, though, right before pulling the “I’m not anti-vaccine; I’m pro-safe vaccine” schtick with a dollop of “we’re just giving misinformation” (or, as I prefer to call it, misinformed consent):

SafeMinds does not endorse any particular vaccine or manufacturer.

No kidding. If Dr. Schneider had changed the phrasing a little, it would have been perfect. She should have said that SafeMinds does not endorse vaccination.