Conference Presentations: David Kirby

David Kirby has been a contributor to The New York Times for eight years, where he writes articles about health and technology, among other subjects. His first book, Evidence of Harm, was published by St. Martin’s Press in April, 2005.

Thoughtful House


I'm honored to be here, and I'd like to thank everybody at Thoughtful House for asking me to come. I'd like to talk about the book, why I wrote it, some of the political issues around this story, and some of the legal issues. The science, legalities, and politics surrounding this topic are inter-tangled. Without the science, there won't be any progress on the legal front or even on the political front. Yet it's going to take political will to make sure that the legal matters get attended to, and that the science gets finished.

The reason I titled the book Evidence of Harm is that, in my opinion, the jury is still out. I know that a lot of people are convinced that mercury in vaccines has contributed to the autism epidemic. I personally will be extremely surprised if it turns out one day that it hasn't. I will also be surprised if it turns out that it's the only factor involved. I think there are other factors involved, including genetic vulnerabilities, as well as other sources of mercury exposure. We're talking about a cumulative burden.

Kids today are being born with extraordinarily high levels of mercury. The theory that I outline in my book is that the mercury-containing vaccines administered at birth (while a child is most susceptible) have pushed a certain number of children over the edge. It is an entirely plausible theory. There's nothing wacky or far out about this. It is insane to think that injecting a neurotoxin into newborn babies will have a beneficial effect for all of them. I think that this subject needs to be debated and talked about openly and honestly in our society. We're adults; we're educated. People can make up their own minds. I'm not telling people what to think. I'm certainly not telling people how to think, but I am telling people to think, and that we need to think. We need to think about this problem and we need to inform ourselves. Every single American needs to come to their own conclusion about whether this happened or not--whether Thimerosal pulled the trigger or not. If a generation of children was poisoned by vaccines, we as a society need to figure out what we're going to do about it, how we're going to take care of these kids, and how we're going to pay for it. We're talking about a cost of trillions and trillions of dollars emerging in the next 10, 20, 30 years in this country alone, and nobody wants to face the music. I can assure you, nobody is budgeting for it--I don't know how we're going to pay for the war on autism.

There's been a terrific response to the book already. We've just received some very good reviews. There was an excellent review in Publisher's Weekly on Friday, which is a bigger deal than I realized, and in the New York Times Book Review. Members of the media are also taking note, in particular Don Imus. I went on his show about two weeks ago. The response has been spectacular: I get e-mails every day, particularly from concerned parents. As a writer, there's nothing more gratifying than having people not only read what you wrote, but having them like what you wrote. But I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. I've been waiting for the big guns to come out. I've been waiting to be attacked. It hasn't really happened yet, but it's starting to. There were two e-mails that were circulated on Friday, one from a group called The National Network for Immunization Information (NNII); they have actually issued a warning. It says essentially, "Warning, do not read this book whatever you do." I figure they just sold about another 10,000 copies for me. I wish we could put that in the bookstore, "Don't read this book whatever you do." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued the other statement and it was not quite so alarmist. It was actually very interesting in the way it was written. The CDC, as you probably know, is the organization that put all these additional shots on the vaccine schedules in 1990. The CDC's National Immunization Program was responsible for both promoting vaccine use and monitoring vaccine safety: that's obviously a huge conflict of interest. Fortunately Dr. Julie Gerberding has just recently separated these two functions, so we don't have that particular problem anymore. Dr. Gerberding, whom I have a great deal of respect for, is, I think, a bit of a political animal as well as a doctor. I believe she understands the ramifications of what's going on here, whether there is proof yet or not. If you read her words very carefully, they seem to be laying the groundwork for possibly admitting that, yes, maybe there is a problem. I know that my critics are going to go through Evidence of Harm line by line, and I'm sure they're going to find things with which to attack me and to attack the people that I quote. I think we're ready for that, but I don't think the attacks will be as vitriolic as some people might expect. I think that speaks volumes for your cause. I was really surprised at how equivocal the statement from the CDC was. They're still looking at this. The language they are using says to me that they're preparing themselves for perhaps one day having to admit that they made a mistake. It's a terrible thing to have to admit, but I can actually sympathize with the people of the CDC. Who would want this burden on their shoulders--that their organization had committed this terrible blunder? I don't mean to come down just on the CDC; there is enough guilt here to go around for everybody.

Here is how I came to write this book: in November of 2002, I was a freelance writer. I mostly write for The New York Times, but I also write for various magazines. A friend of mine told me about some parents in Los Angeles who were treating their autistic children with unusual alternative therapies and nutritional interventions. I thought, "That sounds like an interesting story." I spoke to some of the parents out there, and one of the mothers very offhandedly said, "Well, some people think it's the mercury in vaccines." I had never heard of this before and I actually thought she was a little crazy, but I asked her some more questions. I said, "But wouldn't the government make sure that the levels were low enough so that they wouldn't be toxic? I mean, surely somebody is watching this, so how could this happen?" I put it in the back of my mind. I thought it was an interesting theory, but that it was a little farfetched and that I would have to keep researching the nutritional treatments.

Exactly one week later, they passed the Homeland Security Bill. I don't know if you remember that bill, but someone had slipped an obscure rider into the bill. The rider's effect was basically to dismiss all lawsuits against Eli Lilly and Company and other vaccine makers for putting mercury-based preservatives, namely Thimerosal, in vaccines. That's when every light in my journalistic head lit up. I thought, "Why would they do this? Why the secrecy? Why hide this if there's nothing to worry about." They got caught, obviously, and it was a big scandal which went on for weeks and weeks. It's detailed in the book. I don't know if you remember, but it was the best parlor game in Washington, with everyone trying to figure out who had slipped this rider in. It turned out that Dick Armey from Texas admitted to it. At first he claimed that the order had come from the White House, but the White House denied it. As you probably know, Eli Lilly has supported the Bush Administration quite a bit. Sydney Terrell, the chairman of the company, is on the President's Homeland Security Advisory Counsel, and at the time, Mitch Daniels was director of OMB. He was vice-president of Eli Lilly before that. The White House denied any involvement, so Armey retracted, saying the White House didn't have anything to do with it. Draw your own conclusions.

A lot of suspicion also fell on Senator Bill Frist (a licensed but non-practicing physician) because the language that was inserted into the Homeland Security Bill was taken directly from a bill that he had written earlier that year, essentially declaring that Thimerosal is an actual component of vaccines. That would make Eli Lilly a vaccine maker, and therefore protected under the vaccine program and not eligible for private lawsuits outside the program. A week after that, Bush Administration lawyers went into the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, commonly called the "vaccine court," and filed a protection order to seal the records on all the government discovery materials produced to date. The protection order was so draconian that not only would it seal the records and prevent anybody from ever getting at them or using them in subsequent trials, it would actually go out and round up documents that had already been disseminated to families in these cases, retrieve them, and destroy them. If you read the protection order, it reads like something from science fiction. You can't believe that this could emanate from the United States government. That protection order was withdrawn, and the Homeland Security rider was overturned in January. Bill Frist, oddly enough, became Senate majority leader. Shortly after that, Trent Lott, the outgoing leader, promised three moderate Republicans that he would revisit the issue in January and they would remove the rider. Bill Frist, to his credit, did that, and they removed the rider. Since then, he's been trying to put it back in every year, and he has failed, mostly because of pressure from parents. The current version, as you may have heard, is Senate Bill Three. It no longer contains the Lilly rider. That has been shifted over to the House of Representatives in House Bill 650, but these conceivably all come together in the same place in some final bill. I won't go into great detail regarding Senate Bill Three. One of the current things going on now that I think you should be aware of is that there's a big effort now to ban mercury use in vaccines in a number of states; California has successfully passed a ban and Iowa has passed one as well. We have one circulating in New York right now. Many states are doing it. However, Senate Bill Three would overturn all those bans and would prevent any state from banning mercury in medical products. It would even prevent any state from warning consumers about the potential dangers of mercury in vaccines, so it's a pretty tough bill. I tell people to inform themselves. Some of this information is in the book, although Senate Bill Three was not introduced until after the book was published.

Now, I bring all this up by way of a few more caveats and disclaimers. I hope to make clear that this book is not partisan in nature. I report what I see, and it's up to the readers to draw their own conclusions. At the same time, there is plenty of blame to go around. I know I've been saying Bush and Frist and Armey, and you're thinking, "Oh, he's anti-Republican." That is not the case. As a matter of fact, two of the heroes in this book, from the parents' perspective, if you will, are Dan Burton and Dave Weldon, two of the most conservative members of the House of Representatives--definite Republicans. It's also very important to remember that a lot of what's going on here happened under the Clinton Administration, so Democrats don't get off either. For all the Clinton years, nobody was adding up the mercury burden. Hillary Clinton, like her or hate her (she's my senator and I'm mostly neutral on the subject), was very aggressive in promoting vaccines. Apparently she never bothered to look to see if there was mercury in them. Nobody bothered to look to see if there was mercury in them, and how much it was adding up, in the 1990's. Nobody except Merck that is, who we know did the math in 1991.

When I say "the math," I mean that it is ridiculously simple to take a percentage volume in a ten-dose vial and convert it to actual micrograms. It's ninth grade algebra. Anybody can do it-- but nobody did. Someone finally did the math and sent the resulting information to Merck in 1991. They decided to sit on the information and not share it. It wasn't until 1999, when Congress had ordered the FDA to look at mercury in medicines, that they finally shared their findings. One small group at the FDA finally converted the dosages to micrograms. They added it all up and found out that kids were being slammed with ten, 20, 30, 100 times more mercury than they were supposed to get, and that it was being injected directly into their little bodies. I did some of the math the other day and I couldn't believe my eyes. I actually had to double-check my figures because I couldn't believe it. If you figure that at two months, a reasonably average baby weighs about ten pounds. That child should not be exposed to more than 0.5 micrograms of mercury per day. But on one day, in that second month, a child could get as much as three shots containing mercury totaling 62.5 micrograms. That's 125 times over the EPA limit.

It seems that common sense would tell us why we should continue to investigate and inform. Naturally we're going to see opposing views coming out for political and monetary reasons. They're going to say I had some kind of personal motivation, but I had never met a child with autism in my life until I started this book. I had never heard of Thimerosal until the Homeland Security Bill was passed. I'm a journalist: I just actually thought this was a really hot story. The more I researched it, the more I found that if you open one door, there are six doors behind it and all of those doors have six more doors behind them. The huge problem in writing this book was trying to encapsulate it, and figure out what's been going on, and one day I did that… thank God. It was my agent's idea to tell it through the story of these families. That would necessarily give me a point of view, but this is a book; it's not a New York Times article. It's more interesting to read something from a human point of view rather than just some article. So, without necessarily taking sides, I am necessarily telling somebody's story, and it's an extraordinary story.

These parents, along with the researchers, two of whom are parents themselves, are doing amazing work. It was a small conduit of parents: Mark Blaxill from SafeMinds, Lyn Redwood, Sallie Bernard, Liz Birt, Heidi Roger who contributed enormously; they are all in the book. They're the reason that we're all here today. They figured this out and they wrote a paper. They banged down the doors of government. They did not give up. It's just remarkable what they did. I like to call it "ACT UP for grownups." I don't know if you remember the AIDS activists from ten years ago who did very much the same thing and actually changed public policy in this country. I think we're seeing that again. It's fascinating. These parents get tremendous credit for what they've done. My only motivation was to tell a really good story and I hope and think it is one.

The other thing I want to say is that I am not "anti-vaccination." I think when people attack other people for being "anti-vaccine," it cheapens the debate. That's not what this debate is about. There are rabid anti-vaccine activists out there, but they are not in my book. I also think that there are legitimate issues that need to be looked into. Are we vaccinating too often and too early? I don't know. Are vaccine ingredients harmful? The possibility should be investigated. My book is about mercury. I think to label me or the SafeMinds people anti-vaccine is like saying, "If you're for safe airplanes, you're anti-aviation." It's preposterous. I believe that vaccines are extremely important. Most of us don't remember measles epidemics or diphtheria or pertussis, but I've lived in the Third World and I've seen what happens when you have an unvaccinated population. It's terrible; it's heartbreaking. I'm also not against drug companies. They have produced products that have saved the lives of people that I love, and we need them because this is going to be a tough century epidemiologically. We have all kinds of threats out there, from bio-terror, to SARS, to Bird Flu -- you name it. You can't just dismiss the government and the drug companies, because they are providing services and products that we're really going to need.

So, I'm not "anti-drug company," I'm not "anti-vaccine." I just think the vaccines should be as safe as possible and I think the drug companies should be as responsible as they can be. I don't think what Merck did was particularly responsible. When all is said and done and everything comes out, if it's proven conclusively that mercury in vaccines led to the autism epidemic in this country, and that Merck had that memo in 1991, then they are perhaps partly culpable. 1991 was even before Hepatitis B was added to the vaccination schedule, which obviously added to the mercury load with which we were injecting our children. It would appear that Merck kept its mouth shut and a decade of children were exposed to this stuff. Who knows how many more healthy children we might have today if they had just said something? Would this be different? Would I have written a book? Would I be standing here? We don't know. I think it's tragic, and whether or not Thimerosal caused or contributed to autism, it's just inexcusable that the FDA and the government did not bother to add up the mercury levels, thereby jeopardizing our children. There are some e-mails from the FDA that show clearly when the government issued the joint statement: they issued it at 4:15 on a Friday afternoon in July from Washington (1999). Do you know what that means? That means they didn't want it to get any media attention, and guess what--it didn't. They finally announced that they had added up the mercury and that the kids were being overexposed. They recommended that the involved companies start taking the mercury out.

Merck put out a release two months later saying essentially, "We have been approved for a mercury-free Hepatitis B vaccine; isn't that great?" What they didn't say is that it wouldn't really get fully on the market until about 2001 or 2002, a two or three year wait. So up until about two and a half years ago kids were still getting mercury in their vaccines. If people say, "Oh, they took it out in 1999 and we haven't seen a drop in autism," you can tell them that's why we haven't seen a drop. The next couple of years should bear this out, I think. If autism rates don't come down, it's entirely likely that it wasn't Thimerosal, but something else. Guess what--if it's NOT Thimerosal, we really need to find what it is right away.

I'm truly astounded at the complacency and the ignorance. By ignorance I don't mean stupidity; I mean the general lack of knowledge that this catastrophe is even happening. When you look at the ferocity and the energy with which the government and the medical people are trying to disprove what the anti-mercury lobby is saying, it's appalling. If they had taken half of that time and energy and put it into research, would we have to be here today? There's so much wasted energy going on. I think mercury researchers need to continue their work. I wish they were getting more help from the government. That might change; I don't know. I also wish people were pursuing pesticides and PCBs and flame retardants and jet fuel and everything else that our kids are exposed to today because something terrible is happening; something has changed, and we really need to find out what it is.

Let me tell you a little bit about Simpsonwood. The Simpsonwood Conference Center meeting happened in June of 2000. When the CDC had looked at the data (right after they said the mercury should come out), they decided to look further and see if maybe mercury was harmful. How's that for timing? They had a guy working for them from Belgium, who was just here for a couple of years, Thomas Verstraeten. They dumped the mercury issue in his lap and said, "Here, look at the numbers." As it turns out, he was probably a pretty honorable guy. I think he just wanted to do good science, and he was so far removed from American politics and pharmaceutical company politics that he could try. He was honest. He ran the numbers and his first run of the numbers was just shocking. They showed an elevated rate of autism of 7.62 for kids who received more than 25 micrograms at one month of age compared to kids who received none. He sent his findings out, and, not liking the numbers, they had him re-run them. So he re-stratified the kids and broke them down to various categories and groups and he managed to get the autism rate down to 2.48. Anything over 2.0 in a court of law is considered causation. Remember, he started with 7.62. He wrote an e-mail to his colleagues, a very famous e-mail called, "It Just Won't Go Away." I almost titled the book that, because the phrase comes up repeatedly.

When you put the findings and the e-mails together, the situation comes into context, and it becomes very clear what they were saying, and that they were extremely concerned. An increased autism risk of 2.48 was clearly unacceptable, so they re-ran the numbers again, adding more kids in, and got the autism rate down to 1.69. Then they took the new figure and they had this meeting at Simpsonwood where they invited the FDA, the drug company people, the pediatrics people, and the government people, and they had a little powwow. They didn't invite anybody from the public, including SafeMinds. There was talk of inviting SafeMinds but, in the end, that group didn't get an invitation. At this meeting Verstraeten spent two days presenting his findings. There was a discussion and there was a transcriber there.

I sometimes wonder if these people knew that they were being recorded, because when you read the minutes you just can't believe the atrocities: they're shocking. I'm sure they didn't think that the minutes would ever see the light of day. Thank God for the Freedom of Information Act; America is a great country. Thank God we have a media and thank God we have parents like the ones in SafeMinds who stayed on top of this. Otherwise we would never have gotten this information. I'm not even an investigative reporter. These people just dumped documents on me and I went through them. That was hard, but it wasn't as hard as what they did, and I really admire them.

Mark Blaxill wrote a terrific kind of review of Simpsonwood called "The Governance Problem", in which he very clearly lays out his interpretation of what went on those two days. Here's what Mark wrote in his interpretation of what went on there:

"One, there was an active interest in suppressing the signal in any way possible. Two, there was widespread interest in concealing the information in the study. Three, there had been clear previous pressure to suppress the inquiry. Four, the constant praise for Verstraeten was careful and for the record. The supportive comments by consultants were clearly unwelcome. Five, there were clear moments at which conflicts of interest were apparent. Six, there were numerous errors and omissions surrounding the science."

When you read the minutes you can see that there was concern at Simpsonwood, but it wasn't always about the children, I'm sad to say. The concern was for themselves and the vaccine program. It was about lawsuits and the drug companies and it was about free enterprise. That's what they were talking about and that's what they were worried about. "How are we going to tell the American people this? What are the ramifications? Oh, and by the way, we're not going to tell the American people until we figure out what our message is going to be." So everything was supposed to be all hush-hush, confidential. Nearly everyone involved seemed to be more concerned with protecting their cushy jobs than with protecting our children.

There was one rebel there, Dr. William Weil from Michigan. They had 11 consultants who were asked to vote to decide whether Verstraeten's findings were important or not and, on a scale of one to six, how plausible they were. All the consultants voted one or two, meaning "unimportant" or "irrelevant", but Dr. Weil voted four. He got yelled at, and he yelled back. He said that acute exposures (over 25 micrograms in one day) could be significant, and if you repeat that over and over, it is conceivable that the more mercury you get the more effect you are going to get. He was labeled a rebel and a renegade and a troublemaker. It makes perfect sense to me: the more mercury you get, the more damage you're possibly going to incur.

Some other people weighed in that day. Dr. Richard Johnston from Michigan said, "My gut feeling, it worries me enough. Forgive this personal comment, but I got called out at 8:00 and my daughter-in-law delivered a son. Our first male in the next generation, and I do not want that grandson to get a Thimerosal-containing vaccine until we know better what is going on." That same doctor voted one or two in plausibility. That same doctor did not say a word to the public. In other words it's okay for other kids, but not his grandson.

Some participants seemed concerned about their reputations. Dr. John Clements of the World Health Organization warned that research results would have to be "handled." He correctly predicted that through the Freedom of Information Act, the data would be taken by others and "used in ways beyond the control of this group."

There were others worried about lawsuits. Dr. Robert Brent, a pediatrics professor at Thomas Jefferson University in Delaware said, "Because of the nonsense of our litigious society, it will be a resource for our very busy plaintiff attorneys when this becomes available. They don't want valid data, they want business, and this could potentially be a lot of business." At another point he added, "The medical/legal findings in this study, causal or not, are horrendous…you could readily find a junk scientist who would support the claim with 'a reasonable degree of certainty.' But you will not find a scientist with any integrity who would say the reverse, with the data that is available. So we're in a bad position from the standpoint of defending any lawsuits. I am concerned." That's when they took the vote at Simpsonwood and most of them voted one or two. It seems that they knew they had a public relations problem. Only a few of them thought they might have a medical problem.

Again, this is why I wrote the book. This information deserves to be out there. The American people have a right to know. These guys work for us, we pay their salaries as public health officials and they too need to be held accountable. If people are responsible for letting this happen, we need a public accounting. I'm not saying that people need to be prosecuted, but I think we need to take on the task of allocating responsibility. I am hoping that this year that will start to happen, through awareness, through the book, through Don Imus, through everything that you folks are doing, and through the state bills that are in front of the various State Houses.

A month ago, I would tell people what my book was about: mercury, vaccines, and autism. All I would get was a blank stare like, "What the hell are you talking about?" Now I tell them and they say, "Oh yeah, I heard about that," or, "I saw it on TV," or, "I read about it." By the way, The New York Times is preparing a 4,000 word front-page story, and that's going to be big: that's going to be really big really soon.

So let the games begin. I love to talk and I love to debate. So far, the other side has been a little reluctant to debate me face-to-face. I will be appearing on The Montel Williams Show soon. We taped it about two weeks ago. No one wanted to come on the show to defend Thimerosal. They finally got a doctor on there and Montel pretty much ambushed him. I didn't even have to say anything. I was on stage with Lyn Redwood and we couldn't believe how Montel took the initiative. We weren't expecting it. Afterwards I kind of wanted to apologize to the doctor, but I didn't. I just thanked him and congratulated him. I said, "You know, nobody else was willing to come on the show and do this." He looked at me and said, "Now you know why." Anyway, it was Montel, not me.

So I hope people talk about this at their kitchen tables. I hope people talk about this on television. I hope the local media start reporting on autism in their own communities because it's just wiping out communities. As far as I'm concerned, I've already achieved what I said I was going to do. The book is having an impact and it's phenomenal. Thank you.