Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. parties like it’s 1999 over thimerosal and autism

It was just over a year ago that I had my last bit to say about a man who can arguably called the antivaccine activist who gave Orac his start. I’m referring, of course, to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Indeed, my first deconstruction of the nonsense about vaccines that Kennedy laid down in 2005 in an article foolishly and irresponsibly published in both Salon.com and Rolling Stone was what got Orac noticed, a mere six months or so after this blog had begun—exactly nine years ago, today, amazingly enough. (Holy crap, this blog is old…) Every so often, Kennedy has reappeared to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt (otherwise known as FUD) about vaccines, specifically vaccines that contained thimerosal, a mercury containing-compound that was commonly used in the US as a preservative in childhood vaccines, at least until around 2002, which is when the last lots of thimerosal-containing vaccines expired. After that, thimerosal was not added to childhood vaccines anymore.

Oddly enough, even though autism prevalence shows no signs of decreasing 12 years after it was removed from most childhood vaccines (some flu vaccines still contain thimerosal; but they’re not often used in children anymore, at least not in the US), Kennedy still likes to party like it’s 1999, which is around the time that thimerosal fear mongering reached the consciousness of the nation and lead to the recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the U.S. Public Health Service to remove thimerosal from childhood vaccines. Indeed, as recently as last year, Kennedy was, in his usual subtle way, likening US immunization policy and autism to Nazi death camps. Even more amusingly, at his appearance at the autism quackfest known as Autism One in 2013, RFK, Jr. made a threat. He claimed that he had a book nearly written that would blow the lid off the thimerosal conspiracy and demonstrate that mercury in vaccines causes autism. He went on to threaten:

Kennedy has put together a book-length treatment on the dangers of ethylmercury, given every year to 84 million children around the world including the United States (in prenatal and infant flu shots). He wants to get meetings with the CDC, AAP, FDA, etc., and get a commitment by the end of this summer to finally remove thimerosal from vaccines in one year. ONE year. If not, he said, he’ll publish the book.

“If they don’t do this,” he said, “this is what I’m going to do with my life.” Since they’re not going to do it, it looks like we’ve got a friend for life.

That’s right. If the government didn’t do exactly what he wanted, RFK, Jr. was threatening to unleash hell write a book. Yes, write a book. Actually, he threatened to publish a crank book full of autism fear mongering, quackery, and pseudoscience if the government doesn’t do what he demands. True, he didn’t say that, but the crankiness, quackery, and pseudoscience go without saying whenever RFK, Jr. writes anything about vaccines. But a book-length pseudoscience-laden screed? That’s going to turn the crankery up to 11.

I’ll give RFK, Jr. credit, though. He does appear to keep his promises. I just learned that, true to his word, a little more than a year after making his promise, RFK, Jr. is apparently actually publishing his book. It’s written by Robert F. Kennedy (Author), Jr., Mark Hyman, MD (Preface), Martha Herbert, MD (introduction) and is entitled Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak: Mercury Toxicity in Vaccines and the Political, Regulatory, and Media Failures That Continue to Threaten Public Health.

My first thought upon looking at the book entry on Amazon.com was this: WTF is it with these ridiculously long subtitles? I mean, really. Why are book titles so long? Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak would have been a perfectly fine, albeit highly dishonest title. As it is, the title of the book is simply dishonest and boring. Maybe someone in the publishing industry can explain this for me. In the meantime, let’s take a look at the description of the book:

Over a decade ago, following a sharp rise in developmental disorders such as autism and ADHD, the mercury-containing preservative Thimerosal was widely believed to have been eliminated from vaccine supplies in the US and abroad. However, dangerous quantities of Thimerosal continue to be used, posing a significant threat to public health and leading to a crisis of faith in vaccine safety.

In this groundbreaking book, authors Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Dr. Mark Hyman examine the research literature on Thimerosal and make a very clear statement about its potentially dangerous effects. In the past, the CDC, FDA, NIH, and AAP, as well as the US Congress, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the US Department of Agriculture, the European Medicines Agency, and the California Environmental Protection Agency have expressed concerns over the use of Thimerosal in vaccines. But despite the many voices calling for action, the media and policy makers have repeatedly failed to adequately address the issue.

Notice the sheer crankery. Notice, for instance, how RFK, Jr. says that thimerosal was “widely believed to have been eliminated from vaccine supplies” in the US. Of course, thimerosal was mostly eliminated from childhood vaccines. The only vaccines in which thimerosal is still routinely used as a preservative are flu vaccines in multidose vials. Otherwise, vaccines don’t contain more than trace amounts of thimerosal left over from the manufacturing process and haven’t for well over a decade. Next, he asserts that CDC, FDA, NIH, and AAP, and other organizations have all expressed “concern” about thimerosal in vaccines. This is true—back in the 1990s before the science had solidified to the point that we can be quite confident that mercury in thimerosal-containing vaccines does not cause or contribute to the development of autism.

What appears to have set off the antivaccine crowd about thimerosal again in 2013, even though thimerosal is so 2004, was an effort to exempt vaccines from a global treaty that would ban certain processes that introduce vaccines into the environment. Pediatricians, quite reasonably, argued against the ban on the basis of justice, because in poor countries multidose thimerosal-containing vaccines (TCVs) are a critical part of immunization programs, particularly in areas lacking adequate refrigeration. In brief, given that there’s no evidence that TCVs are linked with autism and lots of evidence they are not, it makes no sense to impose the precautionary principle that richer nations can afford (using only thimerosal-free vaccines) on poor countries.

In any case, not long after the 2013 Autism One quackfest, RFK, Jr. was unhappy about a post by Keith Kloor asking if RFK Jr. was antiscience. (Answer: Is the Pope Catholic?) He was apparently also unhappy about a post by Phil Plait covering much the same ground. So he contacted Kloor and Plait’s editor, Laura Helmuth, after which, hilarity ensued. RFK, Jr. told Helmuth, for instance, that scientists are lying:

Kennedy claims that scientists admit to him in private that they are lying about the data. When he challenged one university scientist about the accuracy of studies showing that the presence of thimerosal in vaccines had no effect on autism diagnoses, “He folded like a house of cards. Three weeks later I heard him on the radio and he was saying the same things he said to me, which I knew he knew was lying.”

One wonders if he’ll actually name names in his book. Somehow I doubt it. Three months before his conversation with Helmuth, he was claiming:

For two years, I have worked with a team of doctors and respected scientific researchers to assemble every published study on Thimeresol, the mercury based vaccine preservative still present in dangerous concentrations in US flu vaccines and pediatric vaccines worldwide. We have assembled and digested close to five hundred peer reviewed published pharmacological, toxicological, clinical, animal and human epidemiological studies in leading publications. These studies overwhelmingly implicate Thimeresol in a host of neurological injuries including ADD, ADHD, Speech delay, Language Delay, Tics, Misery Disorder and Autism. The research team was unable to identify a single study purporting to establish that Thimeresol is safe.

One wonders if Mark Hyman and/or Martha Herbert were part of RFK, Jr.’s “team.” Hyman, of course, is the founder of the quackery that is “functional medicine,” which, coincidentally enough, I discussed quite recently, given that Bill and Hillary Clinton appear to have embraced it. He’s also been known to mangle autism science quite badly. Herbert, on the other hand, has been flirting with the antivaccine movement for years and is a big fan of the idea that autism has something to do with neuroinflammation. Unfortunately, none of her publications persuasively presents evidence for this hypothesis, and lately she’s publishing in bottom-feeding alternative medicine journals articles with titles like Learning From the Autism Catastrophe: Key Leverage Points. Suffice it to say, Dr. Herbert is big on “biomedical” woo, so much so that anti-vaccine propagandist David Kirby likes to cite her and the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism loves her, particularly a case report of hers and her book on “whole body strategies” for treating autism.

If, so, I’m not impressed.

In the end, I probably won’t be reading this book. Maybe if I can get it for free somehow, I’ll do it. However, I really don’t want to provide a single red cent to RFK, Jr. Besides, having covered RFK, Jr.’s antivaccine crankery for nine years now, I don’t need to read it. I know what it’s going to say.