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Robert Todd Carroll

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The Skeptic's Refuge

In Mass Media Funk, you will find articles about news stories, magazine articles or TV programs of interest to skeptics, which do not pander to the public's appetite for the occult and supernatural.

Note: because many of the sites linked to here are newspapers or magazines, it is impossible to maintain the links.


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June 26, 2002. Two more people have died while trying to purify themselves so they could have visions and lead more meaningful lives. In an area of Northern California where I go to taste Latcham Zinfandels and Granite Springs Petite Sirahs, and commune with smoked salmon from the deck of Fitzpatrick's winery, others go to create sweat lodges and commune with Nature as part of a spiritual quest. Unfortunately, some of these people don't know what they're doing.

According to Rick Adams, a Nisenon Indian who is a member of the Shingle Springs Rancheria tribe in El Dorado County and a cultural advisor to the Maidu Interpretive Center in Roseville, "All Native Americans have a sweat lodge ceremony that varies in tradition, but 90 percent of the ceremony is the same. In its sweat lodge ceremonies, the Shingle Springs tribe uses fragrant herbs, including red clover, white sage and wormwood, as part of a tradition of American Indians "cleansing themselves before they go out hunting." According to Adams, Native Americans do not use the sweat lodge for "life-altering self-fulfillment "or "coming of age or anything like that." However, many New Age questers believe otherwise and think the sweat lodge is for healing and transcending ordinary consciousness toward rebirth..

It is not known exactly what caused the deaths of the two people. What we do know is that four people built a sweat lodge so airtight (using plastic sheeting and blankets on a wooden frame) that after 1.5 hours of breathing vapors of herbs and water poured over hot stones, two crawled out "nauseous and overcome," while the other two--Kirsten Dana Babcock, 34, of Redding and David Thomas Hawker, 36, of Union City--"stopped chanting and fell silent."

The Sacramento Bee also reported that "in 1993, Kelly Rice, a 35-year-old Austin, Texas, housekeeper and masseuse, died of accidental heatstroke inside a sweat lodge she entered to pray and purify herself as part of a vision quest ritual."

There are many New Age organizations that make a living helping people find Truth, Beauty and Self-Fulfillment through Nature, but most of them play it safe and don't endanger the lives of their questers. According to the Bee, many of these groups were inspired by the writings of Steven Foster and his wife, Meredith Little, founders of  Rites of Passage, which "offers Vision Quest programs that bring people into the wilderness for healing of Self and World."

I'd like to see them try this program in Australia, where even a little stroll in an urban area or swim at the local beach could mean death by crocodile or poisonous jellies, sharks, spiders, snakes, etc. A trip into the Outback on one's own has meant permanent healing for many people. If anyone were to ask me what I would do if I got an urge to heal myself by getting back to Nature, I would either take a trip to Yosemite or re-read Voss.

June 3, 2002. "Alternative" medicine (AM) is put to the test tonight on Scientific American Presents with Alan Alda. The show features anecdotes vs. science, chiropractic, herbal remedies, and the selling of hope. Check your local PBS station program guide for the time. Good Luck! Many of you have found, as I have, that the local PBS station caters to advocates of "alternative" health practices. You are more likely to see Andrew Weil, Deepak Chopra, or Wayne Dyer than a critic of AM on KVIE in Sacramento. In fact, both my local PBS stations have scheduled something else tonight when others might be watching Scientific American Presents. KVIE is showing a program on yoga ("Yoga master Baron Baptiste tries to transform the lives of forty strangers") and KQED (San Francisco) is showing a program on Doo Wop. KVIE plans to show "A Different Way to Heal?" on June 20th at 8 pm. KQED will show it at 9 pm on June 13th.

further reading

May 28, 2002. How do you defend yourself against the charge that you have caused an illness, despite the fact that the alleged cause could have several origins, none of which might be sufficient to do harm by itself? This is the very difficult position that coal-burning power companies, pharmaceutical firms, dentists, producers of fungicides or fluorescent lights or thermostats all find themselves in because they use or transmit mercury or compounds of mercury.

Those who use mercury in their products are being blamed for many illnesses, including autism. Leading the fight is Lyn Redwood, whose son Will is autistic. She blames mercury emitted by Georgia Power company and thimerosal in vaccinations for her son's disorder. Even though there is no significant cluster of similar cases in her neighborhood, which might indicate an environmental cause, she blames them and others because her son is "especially sensitive" to mercury. Their attorney, who is representing six families, claims "In a fetus or in an infant, their saturation point is reached. They're born with a very, very high level of mercury relative to their ability to process it." This is an assumption. The mercury level of infants is not something that is usually measured. Of course, the only way a fetus can get mercury is through the mother. So, her vaccinations may be to blame for the assumed high levels of mercury in the fetus. However, maybe the mother ate contaminated fish or ate vegetables tainted with a mercury-based fungicide. Maybe. That seems to be the key word here. And perhaps and possibly.

It is fruitless to point out that many people who are not autistic were exposed to much higher levels of mercury as infants and children than those diagnosed with autism. Concern over those "especially sensitive to mercury" begs the question. "Special sensitivity to mercury" is an assumption. On the other hand, there is a very real concern that should be emphasized: balancing the benefits to society of vaccinations versus the known harm that will be done. For the millions who would have died of disease had there not been a vaccination program in effect, there are hundreds who will die because of the vaccine itself. The smallpox vaccine has eradicated smallpox worldwide and saves millions of lives a year.* "Over 80% of the world's children are now being immunized against the polio virus, and the annual number of cases has been cut from 400,000 in 1980 to 90,000 in the mid-1990s."* Over a million children a year die of measles in those countries where vaccinations are not available. Immunization may save more than 20,000,000 lives of children worldwide every year. Nevertheless, some children will die because of the vaccinations because they are "especially sensitive." It is hard to calculate exactly how many deaths each year are due to vaccines, but it is in the hundreds, not millions.* It is impossible to calculate the number of cases of autism that are due to vaccinations, or pollution, or dental amalgam, etc., since the current data do not support a causal connection between mercury and autism, much less between vaccinations and autism.

The Redwoods' argument is that even if no single source of mercury caused their son's autism, the accumulation of mercury from several sources did. So, all sources should share in the blame. Thus, there are two separate issues in the Redwoods' suit. One, does mercury cause autism? And two, if it does, should those who deliver mercury within the legal and scientific boundaries of safety be held accountable for a harmful effect due to accumulation from several "safe" sources?

the causal connection

Dr. Andrew Wakefield sounded the alarm a few years ago about a possible connection between the MMR vaccine and autism and bowel disease in children. Most scientists have dismissed Wakefield's work as inadequate and dangerous, but he is unrepentant and now claims that two new studies will prove him right. A measles epidemic in Ireland has been blamed on Wakefield. Fears of an epidemic in Scotland (where Wakefield operates) and England are also feared because of Wakefield's claims.

We now know that Wakefield was paid more than £400,000 by lawyers trying to prove that the vaccine was unsafe. The payments were part of £3.4m distributed from the legal aid fund to doctors and scientists who had been recruited to support a now failed lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers.*

Thimerosal has been used since the 1930s. One would think that if it were so harmful, we might have detected it before now. It is used in vaccinations as a preservative to prevent contamination by microbes. "The amount of mercury a typical child under two years receives from vaccinations equates to 237.5 micrograms...."* For comparison, consider that a "6-ounce can of tuna fish contains an average of 17 micrograms of mercury."*  The daily mercury uptake from amalgam fillings is estimated to be about 3 micrograms.* (A microgram is one millionth of a gram. There are about 28 grams in an ounce.) "With the newly formulated vaccines, the maximum cumulative exposure during the first six months of life will now total to no more than 3 micrograms of mercury."* This small amount is most probably harmless in itself. However, Redwood claims that it is not harmless to those who are "especially sensitive." She and many others want the mercury out of the vaccines. No doubt, they will soon get their wish. But there can be no guarantee that whatever replaces thimerosal as a preservative may not eventually prove harmful to some who are "especially sensitive" to the substitute. That will be the problem of another group of parents, I suppose. If no preservative is used, any childhood bacterial infection may be blamed on the vaccination by some parents.

Is this just another sad case of people desperate to blame someone for their misfortune? Not quite. There are a number of scientists who support the Redwoods' claims. Some of these scientists look at the effects of mercury poisoning and compare them to the effects of autism. The parallels are striking. They also note that "Autism spectrum disorders have increased from 1 in 10,000 in 1978 to 1 in 300 in some US communities in 1999." And, while the rate of vaccination has not increased by 3000 percent, the number of vaccinations a child now receives during the first two years of life has increased. In any case, some scientists and many laypeople think that the increase in autism detection parallels the increase in vaccinations and that this correlation indicates a causal connection. (Correlations are notoriously slippery when it comes to establishing causal connections. The crime rate may have gone down at the same rate as the vaccination rate went up over the past twenty years, but no one would claim that one caused the other just because of a correlation.)

Nobody doubts the dangers of mercury poisoning. And it may be that one of the causal factors in autism is mercury. But proving that the mercury in thimerosal is not a crucial factor seems impossible, since even though studies indicate it is not a major source of mercury, one can always claim that anyone who had a vaccine and is autistic is "especially sensitive" to cumulative effects from various sources.

sources of mercury

What do we really know about how much mercury is harmful and how many delivery systems of mercury there are to be concerned about?

Mercury is a naturally occurring mineral that can be found throughout the environment. Mercury forms can be found as the elemental metal or in a wide variety of organic and inorganic compounds. There is a constant biogeochemical cycle of mercury. This cycle includes: release of elemental mercury as a gas from the rocks and waters (degassing); long-range transport of the gases in the atmosphere; wet and dry deposition upon land and surface water; absorption onto sediment particles; bioaccumulation in terrestrial and aquatic food chains.*

Mercury....occurs naturally and is found in very small amounts in oceans, rocks and soils. It becomes airborne when rocks erode, volcanoes erupt and soil decomposes. It then circulates in the atmosphere and is redistributed throughout the environment. Large amounts of mercury also become airborne when coal, oil or natural gas are burned as fuel[*] or mercury-containing garbage is incinerated. Once in the air, mercury can fall to the ground with rain and snow, landing on soils or water bodies, causing contamination.*

Elemental and inorganic mercury salts can be transformed into organic mercury by the bacteria in the bottom mud in water bodies. Unlike elemental mercury, organic mercury (often referred to as "methylmercury") can be readily absorbed in humans. The most likely source of methylmercury is eating contaminated fish.[*] Human exposure to methylmercury can result in long-lasting health effects, especially on fetal development during pregnancy. In addition, mercury poisoning has been linked to nervous system, kidney and liver damage and impaired childhood development. Nervous system disorders include impaired vision, speech, hearing and coordination.*

The Redwoods claim that the mercury from vaccines and power plants don't affect most people, but cause autism in the "especially sensitive" by adding to other sources of mercury beyond some "critical point" of safety. They may be right, and the claim seems impossible to disprove. It will be interesting to see what juries think--if it ever gets that far--since courtroom standards of scientific evidence are notoriously low. [update (11/19/2007): juries won't be likely to decide the more than 4,900 cases pending in 2007. An Autism Omnibus Court of Federal Claims has been set up.] It will also be interesting to see what those sued will do. Will they give up and pay off the suers? Will they decide that it will probably be cheaper to settle than to go to court and win? Or will they try to fight it out, knowing how the media and the public love an Erin Brockovich-type story?

mercury and autism

The Redwoods' concern about mercury being tied to autism began when they read a report in 1999 from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that said babies who receive multiple doses of vaccines with thimerosal "may be exposed to more mercury than recommended by federal guidelines."*  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says "five parts per million is diagnostic for mercury toxicity."* But, they recommend taking action if the mercury level reaches one part per million. When he was four or five, the Redwoods' son had "mercury levels in his hair" of "4.8 parts per million," according to his mother. However, "the amount of mercury in hair does not reflect the concentration in the rest of the body."* According to Dr. Robert Baratz, "analyzing hair for mercury is a waste of time and money and cannot be used to diagnose mercury poisoning. A competent practitioner would easily know this."* According to Dr. Stephen Barrett, hair analysis is a common sign of quackery.

Mrs. Redwood says she had two injections while pregnant and one while breastfeeding that contained thimerosal.

However, the EPA's reference dose, or RfD, was truly cautious, based on a single episode of methylmercury poisoning in Iraq in which 81 children were exposed to high levels of mercury in utero. The EPA calculated the RfD by determining the dose that produced a 10% prevalence of adverse neurological effects in the affected children, including late walking, late talking, and abnormal neurological scores. The agency then placed a 95% confidence interval around this dose and divided the lower bound of the interval by an "uncertainty factor" of 10 to arrive at the RfD.*

Thimerosal is metabolized in humans to ethylmercury, not methymercury, but guidelines for safe mercury intake relate only to methylmercury. The FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation & Research, the source of the Redwoods' information about the potential dangers of vaccinations, assumed that "the toxicity of the ethyl compound was equivalent to the methyl compound."* Why? There is very little known about the toxic effects of ethylmercury. Having insufficient knowledge regarding the dangers of ethylmercury, the FDA treated it as if it were methylmercury. This may seem like erring on the side of caution, but it isn't. For all the FDA knew, the ethyl compounds could be significantly more dangerous than the methyl compounds. Then again, the ethyl compounds might not be very dangerous at all.

Further complicating matters is the fact that, even if mercury is a causal agent in autism, genetic and other biological functions might be involved. Infections might weaken detoxification capabilities (like the production of glutathione) in some infants or young children.* This complicates matters as far as identifying what may be a significant causal factor in an individual's autism, but it simplifies matters for those who claim their children are "especially sensitive." Their child may be born with a genetic predisposition to autism, or a weakened immune system, or a defective ability to detoxify. Ethylmercury may have triggered autism. On the other hand, their child may have been born with no such predisposition or weaknesses. But, an infection may have weakened the immune system or the ability to detoxify. Or, it could have been methylmercury that triggered the autism and the source could have been a mother's fondness for tuna fish. Perhaps. Possibly. Maybe.

update: November 22, 2003. The New England Journal of Medicine has recently published a retrospective study done in Denmark that involved over 500,000 children. The study provides "strong evidence against the hypothesis that MMR vaccination causes autism."
[thanks to Harrison Bolter]

further reading

[thanks to Joe Littrell]

May 27, 2002. There was a very disturbing article by George Monbiot in the Guardian about The Bivings Group and viral marketing. In one of its worst forms, viral marketing involves the creation of fake citizens to get into chat rooms, e-mail, message boards, list servers, etc., on the Internet and spread lies about the horrors of the competition or the miraculous wonders of your own product.

"Mary Murphy" and "Andura Smetacek," who may or may not exist, have brought down two UC Berkeley researchers who reported in Nature that native Mexican maize had been contaminated, across vast distances, by pollen from genetically engineered corn. The article was published at a time when biotech companies were trying to persuade Mexico, Brazil, and the European Union to lift their embargos on genetically manipulated crops. After the Murphy/Smetacek campaign, the editor of Nature issued a public retraction and now says the paper should never have been printed.

[thanks to Henry Bauer and Leroy Ellenberger]





©copyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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