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McCain Blames Autism on Mercury

John McCain recently “declared that ‘there’s strong evidence’ that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that was once in many childhood vaccines, is responsible for the increased diagnoses of autism in the U.S.” Jake Tapper reports.

Megan McArdle terms the assertion “nonsense on stilts” and observes that there is now robust scientific evidence to the contrary. Pondering why McCain would say such a thing, she offers two alternative explanations. The more plausible:

The vast expansion of the state means that we expect our representatives to have opinions on everything from missile defense to flame-retardant pajamas. No one could possibly learn about every subject we expect them to know, even if he were not spending sixteen hours a day doing the grip-and-grin with voters, lobbyists, donors, and other politicians.

That’s without doubt true. In this particular case, I would cite the fact that Don Imus has spent years hammering home the mercury-autism link on his program. Given that McCain was (perhaps still is?) a frequent guest on the show, it wouldn’t surprise me if he got a lot of disinformation on this issue from listening to Imus’ rantings on the matter. Given that this isn’t among the top hundred or so issues around which the battle for the Republican nomination is centered, one suspects it’s not something that he’s reading about in his briefing books.

On the McLaughlin scale, where 1 is a minuscule difference that one can detect only with a very powerful microscope and 10 is of such monumental impact that it will derail the campaign, I’d rate this a 2.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. rodney dill says:

    I thought this was already pretty much refuted. Thimerosal has already been not used for quite a while, so the number of cases of autism would’ve already dropped if there was a direct causal link. I’ll have to dig around for the source as I read this a few months ago.

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  2. rodney dill says:

    don’t know if this was the original source I read, but it didn’t take long to find, and says what I remember

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  3. Mister Biggs says:

    Having just gone through all the baby oriented classes to get ready for our first kid, I noticed a lot of the people there who were asking questions about vaccines and autism. There were even parents who stated after explanation that they still weren’t getting them because of the risk. The recent episode of Eli Stone did not help the case of the doctors and nurses at the different course either. I would mostly tie the belief in the link to the emotional side of the parents than the logical reasoning side, that there has to be something specific to blame for the autism and the vaccines are the most convenient.

    On the flip side I have met some in the medical world who believe (off the record) that the increase in autism is more tied to drug use in 60′s catching up with the parents.

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  4. Michael says:

    I thought this was already pretty much refuted.

    A direct causal link isn’t supported by statistics, it could still be one of many environmental triggers of Autism.

    On the flip side I have met some in the medical world who believe (off the record) that the increase in autism is more tied to drug use in 60′s catching up with the parents.

    That’s quite possibly the least educated belief I’ve ever heard of regarding Autism. It sounds more like a “HIV is caused by being gay” type of opinion. Please don’t ever take any medical advice from someone with such views.

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  5. Michael says:

    James, my previous post was caught in the spam filter (I have no idea why), can you please rescue it?

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  6. SavageView says:

    One would have thought that McCain would have the judgment to place a very low weight on “information” from Imus. I realize that he’s still reeling from his reliance on the non-existent Book of Economics 4th Ed. by Alan Greenspan, but honestly.

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  7. Mike says:

    Once and for all, mercury does not cause autism.” Who says it does?

    The studies I read are saying that mercury is a neurotoxin and causes/exacerbates neuroinflammatory disease. There are now 11 published papers that define the underlying medical condition of autism as neuroinflammatory disease.

    The most in-depth paper, “Neuroglial activation and neuroinflammation in the brain of patients with autism,” was done at Johns Hopkins University. It was done by analyzing brain tissue of deceased autistic patients.

    One might think the most logical question would be: What is causing the neuroinflammation? If you go to the most popular health search engine and type in “mercury and inflammation,” you will get 156 published papers to review. Many of these papers explain the role of mercury and activation of microglial cells in the brain. In a paper published in the Journal of Neuroinflamation, “Microglia and neuroinflamation: a pathological perspective,” the authors define activation of microglial cells as being synonymous with neuroinflammatory disease.

    We now know that primates exposed to ethyl mercury via vaccines retain twice as much inorganic mercury in their brains as primates exposed to equal doses of methyl mercury. These primates were exposed to mercury levels at a rate equal to what U.S. children received via standard childhood vaccines in 1991-2003.

    Why has research in this area been stopped? Maybe someone from the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can answer this question.

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  8. Michael says:

    These primates were exposed to mercury levels at a rate equal to what U.S. children received via standard childhood vaccines in 1991-2003.

    Why has research in this area been stopped?

    Because the use of mercury in childhood vaccines has stopped, but the rate of Autism diagnosis in those born after they were stopped has been steadily rising. If Thimerosal was contributing to developmental Autism, removing it from vaccines would have shown that link. It is still possible that mercury is a contributing factor to a more complex cause, but it is not the primary factor.

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  9. McCain’s Junk Science…

    McCAIN’S JUNK SCIENCE….Here’s the latest from John McCain:At a town hall meeting Friday in Texas, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., declared that “there’s strong evidence” that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that was once in many childhood va…

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  10. Francisco says:

    To those who insist that vaccines have not, are not and will no be linked in any way to ASD. That hundreds upon hundreds of stories about children regressing into autism, or developing other autoinmune disorders shortly after a round of vaccination are just the product of fertile imaginations. That thimerosal was taken out of the vaccines in 2001. That the CDC, AAP and FDA have no other interest than the health of our kids. That they are and always will be transparent. That they are not financially supported by vaccine makers. That they have no ties whatsoever with the pharmaceutical industry. That every study ever published discrediting the link between thimerosal or the MMR jab with autism has been unbiased, not manipulated, flawless, definitive, and that the researchers and authors of these studies never had or have any special interests, never received any funding or had any link with the CDC or pharmaceutical companies, and that they were never related in any way shape or form with the pharmaceutical industry. That the media is fair and balanced in reporting both sides of the story; that they do their homework before they report anything, and that they do not respond to any special interests. That every parent who tries to do “unproven” alternative therapies is an irresponsible whacko even if the kids get better. If the kids get better this way is probably just the natural progression of their autism, or they were never in the spectrum in the first place. That every parent should only try ST, OT or ABA with their kids as if these therapies were free, affordable, or even accesible to everyone.
    I cannot force everyone to be objective and really do their homework, as I’m sure I don’t have the time to do it for them.
    As Kim Staglano puts it “you cannot expect 100% of the vaccines to be 100% safe, 100% of the time to 100% of the children” Yet the CDC thinks so.
    My son was diagnosed with PDD-NOS last a year ago, and he is the only peer reviewed double blind placebo controlled study that I need.
    No developmental pediatrician, neurologist, psychologist or therapists have been able to explain to me why his metabolism is so messed up, or why he suffers frequent episodes of unexplained diarrhea, or why he has yeast and atypical bacteria overgrowth in his GI tract, or why he suffers from colitis, or why he is proven mercury and lead toxic. Furthermore, they have not been able to explain why so many kids in the spectrum have similar clinical problems as my son does, or why my son’s behaviors and symptoms have markedly improved with “voodoo” therapies, and treating his clinical issues.
    If thimerosal was removed in 2001 one , then why in feb. 2007 we found thimerosal in 3 out of 4 vaccines that my then 4 months old daughter was going to receive just to have her ears pierced (I still have the vaccine inserts, and by the way this happened in Houston, TX and not in Uganda or wherever).
    I read somewhere that you “don’t need a study to know that sh.. stinks”, I guess if enough people can agre on that, then thousands of anecdotal stories cannot or should not be ignored and considered worthless.
    Also, I don’t want to say that the CDC or the AAP are corrupted and are profoundly interested in protecting their contributors and sources of funding (If I’m just making this up, just go their web pages and find out for yourselves), yet no one who has in all honestly reviewed the famous Denmark studies (form the statistical flaws to the researchers involved, as well as to the funding sources and vested interests), or the manipulation given to the original Verstraten data presented at Simpsonwood could in their right mind say that institutions like the above mentioned are transparent, and that they only have our children best interests in mind. The IOM, and the FDA are also just eating from the same plate.
    The ignorance, or better said, lack of information that the mainstream medical community has is due in large part to their trust of the official federal institutions that I refered to. Your son/daughter pediatrician cannot be directly blamed for not knowing, but for not researching.
    A study is published today (reputable or not)that allegedly destroys the thimerosal or MMR theories as causes of autism, and for the next three weeks you will find it on the web, in newspapers, television news, radio, magazines, and every form of media ever created. If such study (reputable or not) supported the idea that thimerosal or the MMR is related to autism causation you will be lucky if you get to read about it in the classifieds section of a God forsaken newspaper. And the scientific evidence that supports a connection is vast. For starters it is universally known that if I was mass murderer I would inject my victims with mercury. It wouldn’t take much to kill them, and only very minimal dosis would cause serious neurological damage. It is toxic and that is a fact
    Apparently everybody has an agenda, and the parents are left to find answers on their own.
    Unfortunatelly the answers that thousands of parents have found on their own are against everything that is oficially being fed to the masses. Therefore, we can only swim against the current, and work relentlessly with our kids and to see them improve day in and day out with forbidden therapies and traditional therapies as well, and in some cases even recover. All on our own.

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  11. Triumph says:

    McCain Blames Autism on Mercury

    He also believes that the UN is trying to poison Americans by putting fluoride in the water.

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  12. Mister Biggs says:

    He also believes that the UN is trying to poison Americans by putting fluoride in the water.

    No, that is a conspiracy of the Department of Energy and the power companies to secretly cover up the disposal of nuclear waste from nuclear power plants into the water supply.

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  13. caltechgirl says:

    I am a specialist in brain development. I have NO affiliation with ANY drug company and never have. Neither do most of the medical researchers people are so quick to tar with the corrupt brush. The ethics of our profession, and IN PARTICULAR the journals cited above by others REQUIRE any author to state any possible conflict of interest at the submission of any research article. So I take umbrage at the assumption that any scientist who believes mercury is NOT the culprit must be in the pocket of the drug companies.

    The truth is that we know so little about what the brain is doing in young children in terms of making and breaking connections. It is possible that inflammation causes changes that lead to autism spectrum disorders, but then what causes that inflammation?

    Thimerosal is an easy scapegoat. It’s in the public eye, it’s related to a known neurotoxin (mercury), it does all of the things that would lead you to suspect that it could play a role. But research has shown that it doesn’t.

    So we must therefore dismiss it and move on and keep looking for the RIGHT answer, not just the one that feels the best. No matter how difficult that may seem.

    That’s why the research has stopped. Because that question has been answered. There are hundreds of other, equally critical questions to be answered with the same limited resources, so it doesn’t make sense to keep throwing money at thimerosal research.

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  14. C Stanley says:

    Politically, it may actually be quite smart for McCain to make a throwaway statement like that. There’s not a lot of downside, since medical or scientific expertise isn’t expected of a presidential candidate (and as mentioned here, this isn’t one of the top issues that one would expect one’s president to be briefed on.) So balance the very small criticism (basically people going “Oops, he erred- oh well.”)against the number of parents out there who don’t believe that the science is settled on the matter, and it may be a net win for him to say this.

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  15. DL says:

    Wait until professor McCain lectures we peons about global climate change. Oops bad word – it is peons that he supports, and never lectures especially if they are illegal peons.

    It will be a miracle if this arrogant man who thinks his ill formed opinions make him an expert about things.He is a poor candidate who foolishly gives his political enemies all the “unforced errors” they need to beat him.

    Whatever was to gain by venturing into this silly quasi-science area?

    Maybe Huck is the smart one hanging around.

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  16. [...] more: Outside the Beltway wonders if McCain—who has been a frequent guest on Don Imus’ radio show—-has [...]

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  17. Mike says:

    If you count epidemiological studies done by the perpetrators, yes alot of money has been spent on this. To bad they will not share their data (VSD). The most (tens of billions) has been spent on chasing the elusive, spontaneous mutating autism gene. Researchers who try to get grants to do actual clinical studies involving thimerosal have all had their NIH funding cut off. We already know what conclusion the next 10 million dollar CDC autism study is going to have. What a crock.

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  18. SavageView says:

    I’m still waiting for the McCain supporters to provide me with a citation to the famed Greenspan book.

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  19. Michael says:

    My son was diagnosed with PDD-NOS last a year ago, and he is the only peer reviewed double blind placebo controlled study that I need.
    No developmental pediatrician, neurologist, psychologist or therapists have been able to explain to me why his metabolism is so messed up, or why he suffers frequent episodes of unexplained diarrhea, or why he has yeast and atypical bacteria overgrowth in his GI tract, or why he suffers from colitis, or why he is proven mercury and lead toxic.

    Perhaps your son was mis-diagnosed with PDD-NOS, when in fact he has something unrelated that presents symptoms similar to spectrum disorders. It is possible that whatever is wrong with your son is mercury-related, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that your son is Autistic or Aspergers. You know as well as I do that PDD-NOS is a catch-all diagnosis because they couldn’t classify him with anything more definitive.

    There is also the somewhat newer Multisystem Developmental Disorder (MSDD), which we are investigating for my son, but thus far not many doctors have been aware of it.

    Anyway, best of luck finding your answers.

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  20. just me says:

    I have a child with autism. I can say, looking back now there were a ton of signs even as an infant that indicated autism-in how he held his body, his resistance to certain positions, even his photographs and various home videos showed early signs.

    He has normal lead and mercury levels.

    I am pretty convinced the main cause of autism is genetics. I have a pretty details geneology study of my father’s family, and about 6 months ago I was reading it again since it was written about 10 years ago (my cousin did the study and published a lengthy book on it), and I was shocked to read how my great grandfather was described-which sounded very much like he was on the autism spectrum-not severely so.

    I think the vaccine link as a direct cause is pretty much wishful thinking and parents looking for a scapegoat.

    On the flip side I have met some in the medical world who believe (off the record) that the increase in autism is more tied to drug use in 60′s catching up with the parents.

    I think this is also a pretty dumb theory. I wasn’t a drug user in the 60′s, and neither were my parents. I have never done any illegal drug, or been drunk in my life, but I have a child with autism.

    I read an article that was an overview of current research studies being done into autism-and one interesting research study being conducted was a survey of maternal illeness during pregnancy, and whether and what medications may have been used and at what point in pregnancy.

    In the end I think we still don’t know enough to really figure this one out, but my feeling is that it is about 90% genes and 10% some kind of environmental trigger, and maybe for some kids thimerasol is a trigger, but I think at this point more research rather than lawsuits is in order.

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  21. Jennifer Doll says:

    I think everyone is missing the point here. I firmly disagree about vacs not causing autism. As would any parent who had a “normally” developing child until the 18 month MMR shot. Before you decide that you know all about autism, try living with it everyday of your childs life and see if you would then be willing to give child #2 these shots. Not me. What’s worse? The flu shot. No pregnant woman or child should EVER receive these shots. PERIOD.

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  22. Maybe it’s global warming. After all, there is a correlation between temperatures rising and the rates of autism. Maybe mercury poisoning is what causes some folks to reach for a conspiracy as the prime cause to anything and everything that goes wrong.

    But seriously, I feel for any parent or caregiver who has to deal with this and they have my deepest sympathy and support.

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  23. Michael says:

    I read an article that was an overview of current research studies being done into autism-and one interesting research study being conducted was a survey of maternal illeness during pregnancy, and whether and what medications may have been used and at what point in pregnancy.

    I’ve been particularly interested in studies linking Terbutalene and/or Magnesium Sulfate, given to the mother late in the pregnancy, with Autism. My wife received both drugs at different points in her pregnancy with my PDD-NOS son.

    http://www.usautism.org/terbutlaline_interview_autism_one_radio_082305.htm

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  24. Paddy says:

    McCain’s science advisors whould be fired. They are keeping him in the dark and feeding him shit, e.g. global warming and the dange from vaccines.

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  25. Anna D says:

    My theory is that aspartame is responsible for the increased incidence of autism. What did pregnant women who were trying to control their weight gain during pregnancy drink in the 80′s and 90′s (and to this day)?

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  26. Anna D says:

    I had my pediatrician give my son every mandatory vaccine when he was an infant and I also had him get some that were not mandatory at the time (e.g., hepatitis B) because vaccines save lives. Vaccines may have rare side effects, but overall, they are sound public health policy.

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  27. Anna D says:

    To Jennifer Doll, my son has been getting the flu vaccine since he was 9 or 10 (a decade). I’ve been taking it for 15 years. I’m sorry your kid has autism, but look elsewhere for the cause. Like pregnant women drinking diet sodas.

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  28. Tracy says:

    Maybe you should check out this link. http://www.newsmax.com/health/vaccines_cause_autism/2008/03/03/77315.html

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  29. Tracy says:

    Anna,
    I never drank diet sodas – pregnant or not. My son slipped deep into autism at age 2 1/2. Don’t tell me what DOESN’T cause autism until you tell me what does.

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  30. Tracy says:

    Not every child is adversely affected by vaccines but some are. Check out the news story today about 3 infants who just died after receiving their vaccines all from the same doctor’s office. Not every obese person gets diabetes – does that mean that obesity doesn’t contribute to diabetes?

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  31. EVERY TIME I THINK I’M OUT, THEY PULL ME BACK IN…

    Sigh. Did John McCain really have to throw a bone to the discredited mercury-mongers? A further data point that you……

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  32. just me says:

    Before you decide that you know all about autism, try living with it everyday of your childs life and see if you would then be willing to give child #2 these shots.

    I do.

    One reason I am also not on the thimerasol caused it all bandwagon is because Europe stopped using thimerasol in childhood vaccines a good 10 or so years before the US did, but they still saw similar numbers of diagnosis increase at the same rate the US did, that still had the ingredient in vaccines.

    Also, I think you can make some pretty good observations about what doesn’t cause autism, even though you can’t provide what does, although once again I am going for the “it’s somewhere in the genes” theory.

    As for my opinion on vaccines-I think they can cause bad reactions in some kids, and I think there is a case to be made for being careful about what ingredients we use in them, and I also am not a big fan of giving kids 3-5 different shots in one appointment.

    I had all my kids before my son was diagnose and all were fully vaccinated, so vaccine schedules became moot, but if I had a 5th child (not planning to though) I would still vaccinate, but I would choose to vaccinate on a schedule that was spread out, starting with deseases still active in the US and most dangerous to infants, but would still end up with a fully vaccinated child.

    I just think most of the desire to blame vaccines for autism are parents looking for something to blame.

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  33. Michael says:

    Anna D,
    When my wife was pregnant she stopped all consumption of aspartame, as was recommended by her Ob/Gyn. My son is ASD anyway.

    I don’t know of any study showing a link between aspartame and Autism.

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  34. richard says:

    When will you pro mercury people get a clue!!!! You have lost because you chose to defend poison rather than children.
    Now what you have left for a reputation will be even further damaged.
    Why is it so hard for you to defend the little ones?
    A. Child gets damaged by mercury in vaccines
    B. Mercury is removed from child and child loses autism symptoms
    C. families show evidence of recovery in Vaccine injury court and pro mercury people lose all credibility
    Autism ABC lesson provided at no cost

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  35. [...] John McCain endorsed the thimerosal/vaccine explanation for autism.  The idea that these mercury-based vaccines are [...]

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  36. [...] Outside Beltway – John McCain recently “declared that ‘there’s strong evidence’ that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that was once in many childhood vaccines, is responsible for the increased diagnoses of autism in the U.S.” Jake Tapper reports Autism Symptom News [...]

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  37. i am love says:

    Europe stopped using thimerasol in childhood vaccines a good 10 or so years before the US did

    Just me – I am sorry to inform you – I am both an ex-pharma employee and a father of an autistic child who was born in Europe in 2001. My son got vaccinated in 2002 and he was vaccinated with mercury, even though in theory this material was supposed to be out of the market at the end of 2000.

    and yes, i have to live with that knowledge all my life.

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