Health Matters: Common vaccine myths and what the anti-vaccinationists fail to mention, part 3

Editor’s note: Part one of this series appeared in the March 13-19, 2013, issue. Part two appeared in the April 10-16, 2013, issue.

By Zachary Crees & Shawn Joseph
Medical students and members of the student group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford

Vaccines contain toxins and poisons

Intro: Previously, we explored the myths “the annual flu vaccine causes Alzheimer’s” and “childhood immunizations cause autism,” concluding vaccines are safe and effective. Now, we discuss another common anti-vaccinationist myth, “Vaccines contain toxins and poisons.” Frequently employed by anti-vaccinationists, these claims sometimes appear authentic. However, closer examination reveals these myths are NOT based on scientific evidence.

First, we highlight an important pharmacological principle: “the dose makes the poison.” For example, many take Tylenol (acetaminophen) as directed for headaches or fevers. However, taking 50 Tylenol at once can cause liver damage and death. Tylenol can be both a useful medicine and a cause of overdose poisoning. The difference is the dose, which is essential when assessing toxicity. Just as Tylenol is safe when used as directed, vaccine components are safe at approved levels.


The myth: Thimerosal in vaccines is mercury and all mercury is poisonous.

The facts: This myth originates from lacking chemistry knowledge; not all mercury is created equal. Thimerosal contains ethylmercury, and no credible scientific evidence exists linking ethylmercury from vaccines to adverse health effects. Ethylmercury readily passes through the body. Furthermore, thimerosal was eliminated from nearly all vaccine formulas 14 years ago. Still, thimerosal appears on anti-vaccine “toxin” lists. The most common exposure to “harmful” methylmercury comes from fish consumption and can cause health risks. Ethylmercury and methylmercury are functionally very different molecules.


The myth: Vaccines contain antifreeze, a toxic chemical.

The facts: Antifreeze ingestion is dangerous and can precipitate kidney failure and death. However, vaccines DON’T contain antifreeze, nor have they ever. Antifreeze contains ethylene glycol, which anti-vaccinationists mistakenly confuse with polyethylene glycol, an ingredient used in vaccine manufacturing. Even at levels much higher than those found in vaccines, polyethylene glycol has NOT been shown to be harmful. Polyethylene glycol is widely used by millions in laxatives, common medicines and even lubricating eye drops on a daily basis. Despite similar names, polyethylene glycol is chemically and functionally different than ethylene glycol (aka: antifreeze).

Aluminum/heavy metals

The myth: Vaccines contain aluminum/heavy metals that accumulate as toxins in the body.

The facts: Vaccines are NOT “full” of heavy metals. The only commonly used metal in vaccines is aluminum. Aluminum is an “adjuvant,” added to vaccines to improve effectiveness. Federal regulations limit aluminum content in vaccines to 0.85 to 1.25 mg. The average human body contains 30 to 50 mg and eliminates excess aluminum in urine. Healthy bodies naturally contain 30 to 50 times more aluminum than the average vaccine. Furthermore, aluminum is ubiquitous in the environment. The average person consumes more dietary aluminum in food and water than by adequate vaccination.


The myth: Formaldehyde exposure from vaccines is dangerous.

The facts: Vaccines contain trace amounts of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde “inactivates” live virus during vaccine production. Subsequently, the majority is removed, leaving only trace amounts. Nevertheless, reliable evidence suggests low-level exposure from vaccines is NOT harmful. Low levels of formaldehyde are virtually everywhere: the air, foods and numerous household items, including cosmetics, soaps, paper, plastics and wood products. Formaldehyde is even produced in trace amounts by our own metabolism. While repeatedly high exposure can be carcinogenic, low levels found in vaccines and in our everyday life are NOT considered dangerous.

The bottom line

Anti-vaccinationist “toxin and poison” lists are common and misleading. Close examination reveals these myths for what they are, myths. The dose makes the poison, concentration matters. Some vaccines contain ingredients that may be toxic at high concentrations. However, at low levels in vaccines, reliable scientific evidence suggests these ingredients are NOT a significant health risk. Therefore, the anti-vaccine myth “vaccines contain poisons and toxins” is inaccurate. The evidence suggests vaccines are safe and effective.


From the Oct. 9-15, 2013, issue

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