Antivaccine nonsense Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery

Cries the antivaccinationist: Why are we injecting TOXINS into our babies?

While contemplating the burning stupidity that is Jenny McCarthy over the weekend as she mindlessly parroted some of the worst misinformation of the antivaccine movement and assured an interviewer that she would , all the while solemnly proclaiming that, were she to have another child she “”wouldn’t vaccinate at all, never, ever,” all the while objecting to her being portrayed as “antivaccine,” I couldn’t help but notice perhaps an uptick in the use of a favorite antivax question in reference to vaccines:

Why are we injecting TOXINS into our babies?

Jenny McCarthy repeated that question (or variants thereof) multiple times in her interview, while piously proclaiming herself “antitoxin” not “antivaccine” and demanding that the CDC “get all the toxins” out of the vaccines. Her protestations otherwise, McCarthy had latched on to a favorite antivaccination trope that is trotted out with some regularity to try to scare parents. This is why, even now that thimerosal has been removed from childhood vaccines other than the flu vaccine, I have no illusions that antivaccinationists will be mollified for one instant. As I pointed out two years ago on my old blog, it’s all about the vaccines themselves, not any individual ingredient that antivaxers view as unsafe, and now that mercury is no longer in most vaccines, they’ll just move on to other ingredients to try to blame for autism and any number of other diseases.

Just peruse any antivaccination website or blog, and it won’t be long before you find a list of scary-sounding ingredients (cross-posted here), often with commentary about what horrible effects they can cause. Of course, nearly all of these comparisons fail to acknowledge that time-honored pharmacological principle that “the dose makes the poison” and extrapolate horrible consequences known to occur during prolonged exposure or exposure to large amounts to the tiny amounts in vaccines. Indeed, particularly egregious example comes from a post by a lawyer named Kent Heckenlively at both Rescue Post and Age of Autism. In this post, Mr. Heckenlively lists all the extra ingredients that are found in various vaccines, taken straight from the CDC website. I’ll deal with others later, but this should give you an idea of the sorts of distortions common in such lists:

Neomycin is used as an anti-bacterial. It is also nephrotoxic and can cause kidney damage.


Polymyxin B is used as an anti-bacterial. It binds to the cell membrane and alters its structure, making it more permeable. The resulting water uptake leads to cell death. Side effects include neurotoxicity and acute renal tubular necrosis.


Streptomycin is used as an anti-bacterial. Streptomycin stops bacterial growth by damaging cell membranes and inhibiting protein synthesis. Specifically, it binds to the 16S rRNA of the bacterial ribosome, interfering with the binding of formyl-methionyl-tRNA to the 30S subunit. This prevents initiation of protein synthesis. Humans have structurally different ribosomes from bacteria, thereby allowing the selectivity of this antibiotic for bacteria. Streptomycin cannot be given orally, but must be administered by regular intramuscular injection. An adverse effect of this medicine is oto-toxicity. It can result in permanent hearing loss.

All of this is true but highly deceptive. Look at the recommended dosage of streptomycin for the treatment of various infections: 20-40 mg/kg per day, for a maximum of 1 g per day! Why is this relevant? Because every vaccine given to a child during his entire life probably doesn’t even come anywhere near 1 mg, that’s why! Here’s the reason. Antibiotics like streptomycin and neomycin are used in cell culture medium at low concentrations to suppress the growth of bacteria. There are some people who can manage to do cell culture so perfectly that they don’t need antibiotics in their cell culture medium, but for most of the rest of us we’d soon find our cell culture medium all cloudy and turning yellow (the pH indicator turns yellow as the solution becomes more acidic). In any case, the reason that these antibiotics are listed is almost certainly because they’re used in culturing the cells necessary to grow up the viruses used in making the vaccines. By the time the vaccine is made, these antibiotics are only present in trace amounts, nowhere near enough to cause ototoxicity, which only occurs with use in the range of the doses listed above. I suspect that Mr. Hackenlively knows this too but only mentions it because he knows it will scare parents. Indeed, he takes this sort of distortion to a comical extreme with this example:

Sucrose is used as a stabilizer. Over-consumption of sucrose has been linked with some adverse health effects. The most common is dental caries or tooth decay, in which oral bacteria convert sugars (including sucrose) from food into acids that attack tooth enamel. When a large amount of foods that contain a high percentage of sucrose is consumed, beneficial nutrients can be displaced from the diet, which can contribute to an increased risk for chronic disease. It has been suggested that sucrose-containing drinks may be linked to the development of obesity and insulin resistance.

Does Hackenlively think that the baby is eating the vaccine or that there’s kilogram upon kilogram of sucrose in vaccines? This sort of scaremongering is about as dumb as it gets, folks. Using Mr. Hackenlively’s logic, I could say that because there’s the chelation agent EDTA used in some vaccines as a preservative babies could use it as a treatment for heavy metal poisoning. Of course, I don’t want to pick on just him. There are some even more deceptive and idiotic statements on other such lists as well:

Sodium Hydroxide (also known as lye, caustic soda, soda lye.) Is corrosive and is an Eye, skin and respiratory irritant. Can burn eyes, skin and internal organs. Can cause lung and tissue damage, blindness and can be fatal if swallowed. Found in oven cleaners, tub and tile cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners and drain openers.


Hydrochloric acid: CAN DISTROY TISSUE UPON DIRECT CONTACT! Found in aluminum cleaners and rust removers.

Yes, and those effects depend upon the pH of these chemicals, too. The reason they’re used is to adjust the pH of the vaccine to neutral. The twit who wrote such breathtakingly inane prose above clearly doesn’t understand the basic concept of pH. Does she honestly think that the pH of vaccines is either 0 (very acid) or 14 (very basic)?

Of course, the list does contain a number of chemicals that do sound really scary. However, if you remember the principle “the dose makes the poison,” they are much less so. Remember how Jenny McCarthy went on and on about how there’s ANTIFREEZE (just mimicking how the voice of an antivaxer goes up when saying things like this) in vaccines? That’s straight off of a number of antivaccination websites. (Amazingly Mr. Hackenlively refrains from “the “antifreeze in vaccines” gambit. I can only hope that it is due to intellectual honesty, although I can’t rule out the possibility that he just didn’t know about it.) One website in particular links to an MSDS about Quaker State Antifreeze/Coolant, the principal ingredients of which are ethylene glycol and diethylene glycol. Guess what? There’s no ethylene or diethylene glycol in vaccines.

Of course, truth never was a major concern among antivaccinationists. Neither is knowledge. After all, Jenny McCarthy says that there’s “ether” in vaccines, too. The only “ether” I could find in the CDC’s list is polyethylene glycol pisooctylphenyl ether (Triton X-100), a common detergent agent used to make cell membranes permeable. In the past, a compound called Tween-Ether was sometimes used instead of Triton X-100; it’s the same sort of thing, a fairly large organic molecule with an ether chemical group hooked on. I suspect that Jenny and most antivaccinationists are too chemistry-challenged to realize that this is not the same thing as diethyl ether, which was used as an anaesthetic agent before safer volatile agents were developed and is often commonly referred to as just “ether.” Jenny also apparently doesn’t realize that ether is insoluble in aqueous solution. The only way I could even conceive ether being used in the vaccine manufacturing process is if it’s used for a chemical extraction, in which case, it too would be present in at best trace amounts.

In any case, I suspect that the whole “antifreeze in vaccines” canard came from a claim that ethylene glycol is used in the synthesis of thimerosal. Holy crap! Mercury and antifreeze in a single chemical! (The horror. The horror.) In actuality, it’s synthesized using ethyl mercuric chloride, thiosalicylic acid, sodium hydroxide and ethanol, although I don’t know if there are other methods of synthesis that do involve ethylene glycol. The origin of this claim could also come from other trace chemicals in vaccines as well, such as propylene glycol.

Another favorite ingredient to attack is formaldehyde. Yes, that’s the same chemical that’s used to fix tissue for pathology (usually as a 10% solution buffered to a neutral pH known as formalin) and the same chemical used in the embalming fluid for the cadavers we dissected as medical students. (Indeed, I still remember that smell, which was impossible to get rid of entirely during the months I took gross anatomy.) During the vaccine manufacturing process, it’s used to inactivate live virus, and traces remain after manufacturing. At this point, it’s hard not to point out that exposure to far more formaldehyde than any vaccine contains is nearly ubiquitous in modern life. It’s in auto exhaust, and various substances emit it:

Latex paint, fingernail hardener, and fingernail polish release a large amount of formaldehyde to the air. Plywood and particle board, as well as furniture and cabinets made from them, fiberglass products, new carpets, decorative laminates, and some permanent press fabrics give off a moderate amount of formaldehyde. Some paper products, such as grocery bags and paper towels, give off small amounts of formaldehyde. Because these products contain formaldehyde, you may also be exposed on the skin by touching or coming in direct contact with them. You may also be exposed to small amounts of formaldehyde in the food you eat. You are not likely to be exposed to formaldehyde in the water you drink because it does not last a long time in water.

And, of course, every generation of medical students is exposed to large amounts of it. I’m not saying this is a good thing; personally I wish I could have avoided it, and it would be a good thing if we could decrease the average exposure to it while going about our activities of life. However, it’s a matter of perspective. Antivaccinationists are ranting about formaldehyde in vaccines and ignoring the far larger source: the environment. Also, formaldehyde doesn’t last long in aqueous solution, such as vaccines. It breaks down to formic acid and carbon monoxide.

Oh, no. More chemicals! I hate to see what antivaccinationists will write when they find out that dihydromonoxide is a major component of virtually every vaccine. They really should add DHMO to their lists. I mean, just look at what it’s used for!

Finally, now that thimerosal has been removed from nearly all childhood vaccines, the antivaccinationists needed to find another bogeyman in vaccines to demonize, and, given their fear of heavy metals and love of chelation therapy to remove them, the most obvious candidate was aluminum, which has been used as an adjuvant in many vaccines for over 80 years to increase their ability to provoke the desired immune response. True, it’s not nearly as scary-sounding as mercury, but the antivaxers are certainly trying very hard to make it so. They may succeed. Get a load of what Mr. Hackenlively says:

Aluminum hydroxide, aluminum phosphate, and aluminum potassium sulfate are all used as adjuvants to stimulate the immune system. Aluminum products found in commercial antiperspirants have been linked with breast cancer. A recent article published in the Journal of Inorganic Chemistry based on research from Keele University in England was trying to explain the “known, but unaccounted for, higher incidence of tumors in the upper outer quadrant of the breast.” They found that aluminum content was higher in the outer regions where there would be the highest density of antiperspirant. In discussing aluminum’s potential danger the report stated, “Aluminum is a metalloestrogen, it is genotoxic, is bound by DNA and has been shown to be carcinogenic. It is also a pro-oxidant and this unusual property might provide a mechanistic basis for any putative carcinogenicity. The confirmed presence of aluminum in breast tissue biopsies highlights its potential as a possible factor in the etiology of breast cancer.”

And applying an aluminum-based compound to one’s skin over the course of many, many years is related to some injections of aluminum-based adjuvants in vaccines exactly…how?

Of course, the above claim is a total nonsequitur, but what about the frequent rants on antivaccination websites that aluminum causes Alzheimer’s disease and that by implication vaccines cause Alzheimer’s? This is a claim by antivaccinationist Hugh Fudenberg, who is often quoted thusly:

According to Hugh Fudenberg, MD (, the world’s leading immunogeneticist and 13th most quoted biologist of our times (nearly 850 papers in peer review journals), if an individual has had five consecutive flu shots between 1970 and 1980 (the years studied) his/her chances of getting Alzheimer’s Disease is ten times higher than if they had one, two or no shots. I asked Dr. Fudenberg why this was so and he said it was due to the mercury and aluminum that is in every flu shot (and most childhood shots). The gradual mercury and aluminum buildup in the brain causes cognitive dysfunction. Is that why Alzheimer’s is expected to quadruple? Notes: Recorded from Dr. Fudenberg’s speech at the NVIC International Vaccine Conference, Arlington, VA September, 1997. Quoted with permission. Alzheimer’s to quadruple statement is from John’s Hopkins Newsletter Nov 1998.

I’ve dealt with this claim before, pointing out that there is actually evidence that the flu vaccine is associated with a lower later incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in some studies. Whether that study is replicated or not, what we can say is that there’s no good evidence that the flu vaccine is associated with an increased incidence of Alzheimer’s. Also, Steve Novella has nicely summarized the evidence regarding whether or not aluminum is involved in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease, concluding:

The evidence of aluminum and AD is mixed, without a clear direction. At present the best answer we have is that aluminum probably does not cause AD but appears to be playing some role, perhaps influencing severity. But even after 42 years, there remains a question mark next to these conclusions. We can rule out that aluminum is the single cause of AD, but whether or not it is an independent risk factor is a qualified “probably not.”

And, most importantly, about how this science is abused by cranks:

The mainstream scientific and patient or disease-oriented groups accurately reflect the above interpretation of the research. But the complexity of the results make it very easy to exploit for the purpose of fear-mongering. The notorious crank website,, for example, cherry picks the evidence that suggests there is a correlation and piles it up to present a very distorted view of the issue. There will likely persist rumors, scare e-mails, and conspiracy websites promoting the idea that aluminum causes AD regardless of how the research progresses.

And now the antivaccination cranks are climbing aboard the aluminum scare train as well.

Why? Because the scientific evidence is becoming so clear that their previous favorite bogeyman vaccine ingredient, thimerosal, is not associated with autism that even the die-hards are having a hard time arguing that it is anymore, particularly now that thimerosal is no longer present above trace amounts in most childhood vaccines. Consequently, they’re branching out to other scary-sounding ingredients in vaccines and invoking vague (and, conveniently enough, almost impossible to demonstrate) “environmental toxins.”

No matter how many of the “toxins” scientists remove from vaccines, it will never be enough for people like Jenny McCarthy and the antivaccinationists whose propaganda she helps to spread. Because it’s all about the vaccines and the very concept of vaccination itself, not any individual ingredients in the vaccines. Antivaccinationists will never come to a point where they say, “OK, now I believe that all the toxins are gone and vaccines are safe.” They’ll either fixate on the viruses or the viral or bacterial antigens themselves, or they’ll make the claim that vaccines are made using “aborted fetuses” because some cell lines used to grow up virus stocks were derived from aborted fetuses 40 or more years ago. If every trace of formaldehyde, aluminum, or any other scary-sounding chemical with more than two syllables in its name were somehow to be removed from all vaccines, they would still be saying things like this:

It is the toxin, or germ, contained in the shot itself that causes the adverse affects on the immune system.

Dead-virus, or live-virus vaccine etc…who cares? The cultures for polio vaccines are grown in the kidney tissue of dead monkeys in third-world countries with little or no controls and the virulent pustule toxin is put in vaccines to be shot into you little kid’s arm. I wouldn’t go into a room where that putrid stuff is, let alone inject it into my blood stream! Would you?

Against such willful ignorance, the gods themselves, if they existed, would struggle in vain.

I’d love to get an antivaccinationist like Jenny McCarthy who makes the claim that she is not “antivaccine” but “antitoxin” or “pro-vaccine safety” into a discussion and ask her this hypothetical question: If formaldehyde, “antifreeze,” aluminum, thimerosal, and every chemical in vaccines circulating in all those lists on antivaccination websites that so scare you were somehow absolutely removed from the standard childhood vaccines so that not a single molecular remained (just like homeopathy), would you then vaccinate your child? The only thing that would remain is buffered salt water and the necessary antigens, be they killed virus or bacterial proteins, or whatever.

My guess is that she’d say no.

And that’s that–because it’s the “toxin” that makes vaccines work that really scares her.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

Comments are closed.


Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading