It’s the Best of Times to Scare Yourself to Death

By Keith Kloor | June 11, 2013 12:58 pm

Today is a good time to be alive when compared to any in human history, such as 100 years ago, when the average life span in industrial countries was about 50. As one recent science article noted,

the key in driving up our collective age lies with the advent of medical technologies, improved nutrition, higher education, better housing and several other improvements to the overall standards of living.

Although our improved health and longevity are due to science, we moderns in the industrial world increasingly blame diseases (some that are wholly psychosomatic) on technologies that we owe our less-diseased, better-living lives to. What many of us are most afflicted with today are assorted fears and dreads stemming from the very advances that have made us the wealthiest, healthiest humans of all time.

Perhaps the only thing that doesn’t give us cancer is irony.

Some of us, for example, are being made sick by wind turbines. Others by overhead powerlines and WiFi signals. (Is your cell phone killing you?  Are your brains being fried by electrosmog?) Many attribute all manner of diseases to genetically modified foods or to chemical compounds used in plastics and furniture. (What is your body burden? Did you know that your couch may be killing you.) The media, thanks to crusading journalists and activists and influential pundits, fan these fears. My newest all-time favorite headline is from a Reuters story that appeared earlier this year in Canada’s National Post:

Everyday life may kill us: Chemicals in household goods linked to cancer, diabetes, asthma and birth defects: UN study

One recent study has gone so far as to ask:

Are media warnings about the adverse health effects of modern life self-fulfilling?

The tragedy of all this mass hysteria is when real medical (and complex) disorders, such as autism, get woven into these emotionally-laden narratives of environmental contaminants. A double tragedy of this particular one involving autism is that it has had public health ramifications. People have come to mistakenly believe that childhood vaccines can trigger the onset of autism, when there is no legitimate evidence for this. Those who still fervently believe this have focused on one specific vaccine ingredient–a preservative called thimerosal. But as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes on its website:

in 2001 thimerosal was removed or reduced to trace amounts in all childhood vaccines except for one type of influenza vaccine, and thimerosal-free alternatives are available for influenza vaccine. Evidence from several studies examining trends in vaccine use and changes in autism frequency does not support such an association between thimerosal and autism. Furthermore, a scientific review by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded that “the evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal–containing vaccines and autism.” CDC supports the IOM conclusion that there is no relationship between vaccines containing thimerosal and autism rates in children.

I mention this because I recently wrote a post that was highly critical of Robert Kennedy Jr., who does not accept this explanation by the CDC. He continues to believe that there is a connection between autism and thimerosal. He continues to believe that medical authorities are hiding the true facts, a case he attempted to make in his controversial 2005 Rolling Stone story. That piece was harshly criticized for its scare-mongering and for various inaccuracies and was eventually removed by Salon, which had co-published it.

Kennedy, however, still stands firmly behind it. And he believes he will be vindicated by a book he commissioned to examine the supposed links between thimerosal and autism. I know this because shortly after my post on Kennedy appeared, he called me to say that the CDC and I were wrong and that there was essentially a huge cover-up about the autism/vaccine connection.

I had never spoken with Robert Kennedy Jr. before and only know of him through his environmental advocacy and many articles. And even during his phone call to me, I didn’t actually have a conversation with him, because he pretty much talked non-stop for over an hour. The few times I did get a word in I had to loudly interrupt him, which led my wife, who came home towards the end of the call, and who didn’t know who I was speaking with, to ask after I hung up the phone: “Who were you shouting at?”

In truth, our exchange was cordial, despite my fundamental disagreement with Kennedy. But it was a mighty perplexing and to be frank, disheartening conversation. After I pointed out a second time that scientists haven’t found any causal link between autism and thimerosal in vaccines, he responded:

That’s true that regulatory scientists are saying that. But not the research scientists. I can show you paper after paper in the most respected peer review journals, and all them are gasping, “why is this stuff still available’?

He told me that the book he commissioned has a chapter “we were going to leave out, because it’s so controversial, but the evidence is so strong that thimerosal causes autism,” that he’s keeping it in.

Yet in the next breath he said he wasn’t going to publish the book (even though it has a publisher and is going through edits right now) because it is so explosive that he doesn’t want it to prompt a mass panic: “I don’t want parents to stop vaccinating their kids.” (“I’m pro-vaccine,” he insisted several times during the call.) I tell Kennedy that if he feels he’s marshaled compelling evidence showing a link between thimerosal and autism, then he has a responsibility to show it and not merely expect people to take his word for it. I certainly am not. I also suspect that Kennedy is as objective and open-minded on this issue as Marc Morano is on climate change.

Still, he promised to share the manuscript with me once it’s done being edited. I tell him that I’m dubious about what he’s found but that I’ll reserve judgement until after I read it. He says he spent $100,000 on the research and writing for the book and $100,000 to have it fact-checked. “Anybody who reads it will say, ‘what the fuck are we doing? We’re poisoning an entire generation.'”

If Kennedy feels that strongly, he should release the book. Let the scientific press and experts examine it. Until he does this, he should stop peddling conspiracy theories and whipping up the anti-vaccine crowd with Nazi analogies.

It’s also time the rest of us stopped scaring ourselves to death about the trace amounts of chemicals in our everyday lives, of which by the standards of our grandparents or great-grandparents, are pretty damn good.

UPDATE: It turns out that Laura Helmuth, the science and health editor at Slate, recently had one helluva phone conversation with Robert Kennedy Jr., too.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets.From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine.In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest.He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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