Parents, experts push ban on mercury in some vaccines

Monday, February 21, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:15 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Staunch isn’t a strong enough word to describe Lujene and Alan Clark’s support for a proposed new law that would prohibit mercury-based preservatives from being included in childhood vaccines.

The Southwest Missouri couple’s 9-year-old son, Devon, has Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. Some scientists and parents of autistic children have suggested that excessive exposure to thimerosal, a preservative that contains mercury, could contribute to the disease.

For the Clarks, that debate is irrelevant. As founders of the advocacy group NoMercury, they are asking Missouri lawmakers to join California and Iowa, states that have similar anti-thimerosal laws on the books.

“We are not having a scientific debate, it’s a political and financial debate” said Lujene Clark. “The science is there: Mercury is dangerous. No one should receive a known neurotoxin in their vaccines.”

A pair of bills sponsored by state Sen. Norma Champion, R-Greene County, and Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, would prohibit the use of any vaccines containing thimerosal and other mercury-based preservatives.

Though many childhood vaccines no longer contain thimerosal because of manufacturer response to public concerns, some flu vaccines still do.

At a hearing last week of the state Senate Committee on Aging, Families, Mental and Public Health, no one spoke against the proposed law. The bill could come up for a vote in that same committee this week.

A similar bill was forwarded to the Senate floor on the last day of the 2004 session but did not come to a vote.

Although bill supporters have charged former Democratic Sen. Ken Jacob of Columbia with blocking the bill through a final-day filibuster, he offered another explanation.

Jacob said he did stand up on the Senate floor to debate the bill, but it was laid over by Senate leaders and therefore killed.

When the bill unexpectedly came up on the floor, Jacob said, he had not heard any debate on the measure.

“I didn’t have any intentions to filibuster it. I didn’t take but two minutes on the floor. The whole time I stood up probably lasted a few minutes,” Jacob said. “On the last day, anything that’s going to take that much time isn’t going to pass.”

The Clarks both testified at the recent hearing. Lujene is a family practice nurse, and Alan, a doctor, has worked in emergency medicine and family practice for 30 years.

“There was no opposition testimony, which should send a very big message across the state,” Lujene Clark said. “This happened to our child. We’re a medical family. We can’t in good conscience let it happen to another family.”

State health officials are withholding a position on the proposal to further study the contrasting bodies of scientific information.

“The Department of Health has actually not come up with a position on this issue,” said Sue Denny, the department’s spokeswoman. “The Institute of Medicine has a very substantial report on the Internet that they cannot find evidence that thimerosal is linked to autism. So we are still in the process of formulating an opinion on the bill.”

A report by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based nonprofit contradicts the Institute of Medicine position. A December 2004 study for the group conducted in large part by Dr. Jill James of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences states that “the EWG recommends the removal of thimerosal and all mercury-based preservatives from all vaccines.”

“The study adds to the weight of the evidence that you really don’t want to have any mercury in vaccinations if you don’t have to. And you want to be limiting mercury exposure across the board, like in seafood, drinking water. Any way you can limit mercury exposure it’s a good deal. That’s why we support legislation like this,” said Richard Wiles, the environmental group’s senior vice president.

The Columbia/Boone County Health Department supplies some vaccines, such as flu shots, without thimerosal to people who ask, although spokeswoman Heather Baer said there is not an overwhelming demand for such vaccines.

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