Should You Worry about Mercury in Swine Flu Vaccine?

Q: Should you worry about mercury in Swine flu vaccine?

Vaccination: Photographer James Gathany--CDC Judy Schmidt

Photographer James Gathany--CDC Judy Schmidt

A: Good question. Ok, it’s not really an “environmental” issue, but it does concern our physical bodies (and those of our children) so it is a “creation care” issue. The underlying real connection is whether we are willing to trust scientific consensus on some issues but not others. Hint: if you wear a seat belt but also believe that thimerosal preservatives in vaccines cause autism, you may be inconsistent. Similarly, if you buckle your kids up but don’t believe people are causing global warming, you may be inconsistent in your attitude toward expert opinion.

A strong scientific consensus exists that says seat belts save lives, a strong scientific consensus says that people are causing global warming, and a strong scientific consensus exists that thimerosal preservatives in vaccines are safe . Why trust one and not the other?

You didn’t answer the question: Should you worry about mercury in swine flu vaccines?

I’m not a doctor (well, actually I am, but a Ph.D. doesn’t qualify me to give medical advice). So the first caveat is, you should ask your own doctor about the swine flu shot (H1N1) and the safety of vaccinating your kids.

Joanna and I vaccinated all three of our children (ages 2, 6, and 9), because the risks from seasonal and swine flu seem so much greater than the risks from the mercury in the vaccinations. The swine flu injections they received contained thimerosal (although not all do). The amount of mercury in the vaccinations was about the same as that contained in a  six-ounce can of chunk light tuna (25 micrograms in the vaccine, versus 20 micrograms in a can of chunk light tuna). It’s much LESS mercury than in a can of albacore tuna. So we could simply cut out tuna for a week and make up for whatever mercury they were exposed to in the vaccine.

In addition, the form of mercury in thimerosal is ethyl mercury, which is excreted much more quickly than methyl mercury, so the actual exposure is much, much less. So we’re not worried at all about that mercury exposure.

Wait, there’s mercury in tuna?

Yes, and THAT’S the kind of mercury exposure we should all be much more worried about (because most childhood vaccines no longer contain mercury as a preservative). Methyl mercury levels in many kinds of fish are high enough to cause harm when consumed regularly. Fish is good food and should be a part of a healthy diet, but because of the world’s dependence on coal-fired generating plants, we put a lot of extra mercury into the environment, which ends up in the fish and shellfish we eat.

The biggest anthropogenic source of mercury in the environment is pollution from burning coal to produce electricity, and that pollution gets into our bodies. If you have kids, you should feed them chunk light instead of albacore tuna (or tuna steaks) and limit the amount to a six ounce can a week or so. There is a joint FDA/EPA advisory about mercury in various kinds of fish, which everyone should read.

Should you get the swine flu shot if you’re pregnant?

Almost certainly. Both seasonal flu and H1N1 pose serious risks to pregnant women and their babies. It appears to be much more dangerous for a woman and her unborn baby if she gets the flu. You may be able to get a thimerosal-free formulation, but in any case the CDC recommends that pregnant women are vaccinated–they’re near the top of the priority list for H1N1 vaccination. Talk to your doctor, or read the CDC guidance on H1N1 vaccines and pregnancy.

Life is complicated, and requires that we weigh risks carefully, and that we rely on good science and not rumor, conjecture, and pseudo-science. Sometimes we avoid one risk and

inadvertently put ourselves in danger of much greater problems. Whether it is people refusing to buckle their seat belts for fear of being trapped in a car crash, people in high risk groups avoiding the flu vaccine, or people who fear environmental regulation but don’t worry about the dangers of unmitigated climate change, we need to take a deep breath, ask for wisdom, and act accordingly. Buckle up, fight climate change, and follow your doctor’s advice on the flu shot.

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