J.B. Handley concluded long ago that mercury is but one component in childhood vaccines that could be contributing to the epidemics of autism and developmental disabilities in American children. And after following two decades of ferocious debate and misdirected, inadequate study, he finds the topic a bit outmoded, the question a non sequitur. He answers it with a series of questions.
"Do I know that it and it alone is why we have all these kids with autism?" the co-founder of Generation Rescue said of mercury, a neurotoxin used for decades in childhood vaccines. "… How am I supposed to know whether it was the (mercury-laden) thimerosal, the aluminum, the antigen, the timing of the shot, the combination of the shots or all of the above? How in the world could I divine that?"
The studies that have been done on these questions were conducted for the wrong reasons, Handley said. And the children whose regression into autism corresponded with their vaccinations have not been studied at all. In fact, they have been deliberately avoided.
While mainstream science is coming to the view that autism is linked to environmental toxins, the issue is vast and vexing, he said. Mercury through vaccines is but one of dozens of toxic exposures children experience before and after birth, while their social, behavioral and intellectual systems are forming.
But the one commonality nearly all kids diagnosed with autism since the early 1990s share is that their parents followed a vaccination schedule that demands 25 injections by their first birthdays.
"When you really know what’s been studied and what’s not been studied, you’d have to be a moron to not put vaccines in your top three of possible toxins," Handley said. "You have to be a moron."
Parents, the father of three added, would not have to be of a depleted mental state to believe their children receive mercury-free vaccines today. That myth that is widely perpetrated by the vaccine industry and an ill-informed and irresponsible mainstream media.
In 1999, federal health officials recommended that manufacturers take thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative, out of vaccines, when possible, Handley said, emphasizing the last point. "They never told them to take it out. They encouraged them to."
Handley disputes the 2002 date by which government and industry say they effectively reached that goal. But the salient point is that some vaccines still contain mercury, he said, including flu shots that are recommended annually for children. "Today, 80 percent of the normal flu and most of the H1N1 all have thimerosal," he said. "So this notion of a binary world where thimerosal no longer exists but used to is just fiction."
One father of an autistic child analyzed the data, Handley said. "If you gave a kid all the shots he needed today and a thimerosal-laden flu shot every year, then by the time he was 5 he’d have gotten 60 percent of the amount of thimerosal gotten at the peak of the scheduling in ’99."
The Portland, Ore., businessman, of course, agrees that removing a neurotoxin like mercury from vaccines was wise, regardless of when it started or how far the effort actually went. The knowledge about mercury’s toxic properties is substantial, and some countries, like Denmark, had removed it from their vaccines in the early 1990s.
But given the knowledge today about pre- and postnatal toxic exposures for children, arguing that mercury or any other individual component in vaccines is solely responsible for the epidemics of autism, learning delays and other disabilities is nonsensical, Handley maintained.
"The truth is we have no idea because thimerosal is but one of dozens of ingredients in vaccines," he said.
And the science that his critics often cite as proof that vaccines do not cause autism — like a 2002 Danish study published in the New England Journal of Medicine — has studied populations, not causality. The Danish study found that autism rates went up after thimerosal was banned.
"If you take it out and the rate doesn’t go down, that doesn’t mean vaccines don’t cause autism," Handley said. "… Yes, it seemed like a great idea to pull mercury out of a kid’s shot. I applaud it. But there’s aluminum chloride in there today in very high quantities, which is a profound neurotoxin."
The bottom line, he said, is no one has any clue what causes autism or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or any other disability. Nothing has been ruled in or out as a cause. And he still receives calls from parents who relate the same stories he’s heard for years about their children’s vaccine-connected regression into autism.
"These things are still happening to the kids," he said.
That the government and vaccine industry avoid and fear the truth about links between immunizations and autism is evidenced in a multitude of ways, Handley said.
He cited as one example an interview that Dr. Bernadine Healy, a former director of the National Institutes of Health, gave in 2008 in which she called for major studies on children who regressed into autism like Handley’s 7-year-old son Jamie did. In an interview with CBS News, Healy accused public health officials of turning their backs on the vaccine-autism link out of concerns that merely talking about the subject would scare parents away from vaccinations.
"What she’s saying is, ‘I’m profoundly disappointed in my colleagues, who could easily do the work to get to the answer, who don’t want to know the answer for fear of what it might say,’" he said. "So the work hasn’t been done yet."
The work that has been done was not conducted to find answers but to address public furor, specifically related to thimerosal and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, Handley said.
The thimerosal concerns evolved from a congresspersons’s attempt to ban mercury from consumer products, which led to the Food and Drug Administration acknowledging that thimerosal contained mercury. "When someone finally ran the math they realized it was a very high number compared to the EPA safe limits," he said.
That led to the July 1999 news release "that kind of set the world on fire" when it recommended thimerosal be removed from vaccines, which started the public questioning vaccine safety and scientists studying it, Handley said. Several studies of the MMR vaccine in Europe and Japan followed concerns raised in England about its connection to autism.
"If you look at every piece of science ever published, they’ve only been done to quell concerns, … to address the headlines," Handley said, not to explore valid hypotheses. "We’re no closer to knowing than we were before."
Yet another example of the industry’s indifference toward the threats vaccines may pose to children’s developmental health is the fact that thimerosal-laden vaccines are routinely shipped overseas, he added. "I mean to a shot, there’s no single shot of thimerosal-free vaccine being given in Uganda right now."
And mainstream science hasn’t even considered studying how different combinations of vaccines given in single settings might affect children’s developing systems, Handley said. "Read anywhere in the CDC literature, if you really look, they’ve only tested each shot by itself for an adverse event. But as you know, drugs have interactions."
Kids typically get six shots in three to four minutes during their "well-baby" doctor visits, he explained. "What if each additional shot kids get at these appointments in rapid succession compounds the risk of an adverse event? Maybe one shot would be fine for many, but five or six shots at one time is bad for many or most."
Handley calls the current state of research on the autism-vaccine link "tobacco science in its early phases." Its real purpose is to convince the public that it’s time to move on and look at other toxins, when real-world evidence suggests the opposite.
As complicated as the issue is, Handley believes that some answers are readily available if science were designed in the real world.
"It’s a lot easier than you think," he said, suggesting a two-pronged approach. One would involve animal experimentation that would mimic the human experience with vaccines, the other children whose parents, for religious or personal reasons, did not vaccinate them. "You go find all the unvaccinated kids in the United States of America, and there are many," he said, "and you look at their autism rate."
The Centers for Disease Control reports that 15 percent of children in Jackson County, Ore., are unvaccinated, Handley said. Someone needs to find out how these kids look comparatively. "It’s in the pockets of the unvaccinated kids where the first truths may be found," he said.
And then there are the baby siblings, like Handley’s 3-year-old daughter, "who was born after we knew what we know." She received no vaccines and only one round of antibiotics when her life was at risk. "Everything I wish I had done with Jamie I did with her, and of course she’s developmentally perfect."
Baby sibs, he said, offer another avenue for study, if science were truly interested. "Let’s go look at the parents who are most careful with toxins during the stages of development and figure out what the autism rate is amongst those kids."
STEVEN HIGGS is a Bloomington, Ind.-based freelance writer, who publishes The Bloomington Alternative and writes the "Autism and the Indiana Environment Blog." He can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.