Radio shock jock Don Imus (search) is on a rampage about the vaccine preservative thimerosal (search) allegedly causing autism (search).

A closer look at the facts, however, reveals that while thimerosal is safe, Imus unfortunately appears to be suffering from a case of Charlie McCarthy Syndrome, with his eco-crusader wife as the ventriloquist.

Since the beginning of March, Imus has been ranting about thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used to prevent contamination from fungi and bacteria in countless vaccines administered to adults and children since the 1930s.

But in 1999, frenzied and junk science-fueled activists goaded wobbly-kneed pharmaceutical companies, federal public health agencies and the American Academy of Pediatrics to agree to reduce or eliminate thimerosal from vaccines as a precautionary measure.

Thimerosal was so dangerous, you see, that no one noticed it during more than 60 years of regular use -- that is, until the late-1990s, when the mercury-containing preservative was blamed by some parents for causing autism in their children.

Autism is a little-understood complex developmental disability that affects individuals in the areas of social interaction and communication. Symptoms of autism typically don’t become apparent until a child reaches 16-36 months in age and has trouble progressing from saying a few words to expressing more complex ideas.

Parents whose children “turn” autistic often erroneously associate the onset of autistic behavior with some contemporaneous event such as vaccination. Given that mercury (search) can produce neurotoxic effects (search) -- although typically only at relatively high exposures associated with accidental poisoning -- it’s easy to understand how the thimerosal scare came about. It’s less easy to understand, however, why the public health establishment caved in to this unfounded scare.

Many reputable medical organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine, have examined the claims against thimerosal, and none have found scientific support for the scare. A study published in the September, 2004 medical journal Pediatrics, for example, examined 12 studies published between 1966 and 2004 that sought to find a potential link between thimerosal vaccines and autistic-type disorders.

“Studies do not demonstrate a link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autistic spectrum disorders (search),” concluded researchers from the Children’s Hospital and University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The researchers further concluded that the range of blood mercury levels (search) measured in children after vaccination is not in the known range of mercury toxicity. It’s the dose that makes the poison, after all.

The researchers also noted that, while several studies reported correlations between thimerosal and autistic disorders, they had “significant design flaws that invalidated their conclusions.”

Other researchers even reported in January 2004 that, “The discontinuation of thimerosal-containing vaccines in Denmark in 1992 was followed by an increase in the incidence of autism.”

Imus acknowledges the mainstream medical view that thimerosal is safe, but says he doesn’t care. He’s convinced that pharmaceutical companies are hiding the truth “to cover their rear-ends.” Imus is pressuring publicity-seeking politicians like Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., -- who has appeared on his radio program several times -- to take action. In lighter moments, Imus jokes that thimerosal is to blame for his own sudden mood swings and irritability.

The force behind the 60-something Imus’ thimerosal tirade appears to be his 30-something wife, Deirdre, who is the founder and director of something called the Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology (search) located in the Hackensack University Medical Center. The mission of Deirdre’s Center is to educate and take action “to identify and eliminate the carcinogens and environmental factors that assault and ravage our lives.”

Although there is no sound scientific evidence linking substances in the environment with childhood cancer – genetics and infective agents seem to be the most likely causes of childhood cancer, which, fortunately, is relatively rare – this doesn’t seem to bother Deirdre, whose bio describes her education, experience and expertise as “a graduate of Villanova University with a B.A. in International Relations. She ran track at Villanova and has since then completed several triathlons and has run the New York City Marathon twice, most recently in the time of 3 hours 31 minutes.”

Imus noted on his program that while Deirdre doesn’t claim to be an expert on thimerosal, she does know “an awful lot about it.” Right.

Her bio doesn’t mention where she might have gained that “awful lot” of knowledge, but it does point out that “Deirdre was recently featured as a 'Woman of Substance and Style' in Organic Style Magazine" and that the Imus ranch “was recently the cover feature in Architectural Digest and Deirdre takes particular pride in having designed and decorated a total of 17 buildings, including an authentic circa 1880’s western town and a 14,000 square foot hacienda.”

The Deirdre-and-Don show reminds me of the sad story of famous baby doctor Dr. Benjamin Spock (search), who severely damaged his credibility with the final version of his book “Baby and Child Care” published at the end of his life.

At the urging of his second wife, a political activist and health food advocate who he married when he was 73 and she was 32, Spock irresponsibly recommended that children be raised on a vegan vegetarian diet with no milk, eggs and meat after age 2.

I don’t really care if Imus wants to thrust his wife’s wacky anti-chemical agenda on his listeners, but the public shouldn't to be scared about vaccine safety, and politicians and public health policy shouldn’t be influenced by such antics.

Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and CSRwatch.com and is an adviser to the Free Enterprise Action Fund. He is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and is the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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