Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Crusade

By Keith Kloor | July 18, 2014 8:40 am

Some stories I pursue, others I let unwind a bit to make sure they are for real. The cover story I wrote on Robert Kennedy Jr. for this Sunday’s Washington Post magazine falls into the latter category.

Kennedy during a 2007 talk.  (Source: Wikipedia)

Kennedy during a 2007 talk. (Source: Wikipedia)

You couldn’t find a more unlikely author of this story than me. Last summer, I wrote two critical posts about Kennedy. The first was in response to a keynote talk he gave at an annual autism advocacy conference that is notorious for bringing half-baked diagnostic theories, anti-vaccine fervor, and alternative therapy boosterism  under one tent.

The second post discussed a phone call between myself and Kennedy, in which I learned he was hellbent on proving that increasing autism rates and an array of developmental disorders could be linked to thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in some flu vaccines and phased out of U.S. pediatric vaccines in the early 2000s.

Kennedy said he amassed the proof in a new book and challenged me to read it. I said I would.

He sent me the manuscript later in the summer. Shortly after that, we talked some more. He told me of several upcoming meetings in Washington D.C. that he had been able to arrange, relating to his book. One was with a senator and another with government health officials.

This piqued my interest.

Meanwhile, I started reading his manuscript and he kept calling me with updates. To this point, nothing I had heard from him or begun to read in his book dissuaded me that he was dead wrong, but his persistence was impressive. One day he texted and called to tell me about an upbeat phone conversation he just had with Kathleen Sebelius, then Secretary of Health and Human Services. She was going to read his book and maybe even meet with him.

Kennedy seemed to be getting somewhere. I saw the story developing.

Eventually I finished his book, which will be published in early August. I also followed Kennedy around DC to some of those meetings, scenes that are depicted in my Washington Post magazine story.

I have much more to say about all this, particularly his book. But for space reasons, I had to keep my story narrowly focused on Kennedy’s vaccine crusade as a defining issue in his life.

In a follow-up blog post appearing tomorrow, I explore two claims at the heart of Kennedy’s new book: 1) There is a  body of science that indicts thimerosal–even in minute doses–as being harmful to the brain, and 2) thimerosal can be linked to an array of neurodevelopment disorders, including autism.

I realize that for many (including myself) these questions have already been settled by science. But I promised Kennedy that I would read his book and consider anew the evidence he has compiled. Did he he uncover evidence that forced me to reconsider my position? Check back tomorrow morning.

Meanwhile, read my story of Kennedy’s crusade and let me know what you think.

  • mem_somerville

    “I’m completely f—— alone on this,” he said.

    Yes, yes you are. With cause.

    Although, I’d predict you are about to get a shitstorm of hate mail (possibly from both camps). I’ll bet there will be some folks in there who are with him. You’ll recognize them from the writing all in caps and can filter with the terms “Rothschild”, “Gates” and “Illuminati”.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    It is probably a bad idea to repeatedly ultrasonicate fetuses to entertain parents with sonogram images – no matter how large the price/cost ratio is for hospital administrators. Disrupting membranes and nascent neural connections cannot possibly be harmful to the fetus if billed to medical insurance. No Child Left Behind forever needs synthetic victims to deny the existence of genuine congenital 85 IQs.

    • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

      I’m assuming this is satire.

  • David Skurnick

    Nice article, Keith. Kennedy said: “The only way I can stop this is if someone shows me I’m wrong on the science.” But, Kennedy isn’t a scientist. So, how can he ever be shown that he’s wrong on the science?

  • Dylan

    Good article. I could see why you would be worried.

    “Hyman tried to deflect this. “Yes, there’s been an increase in autism, even as we take out thimerosal,” he acknowledged. “But the issue isn’t whether thimerosal is causing these problems.” Rather, the larger issue, he said, was whether it was toxic and a potential contributor to neurodevelopmental disorders.”

    Is this as dumb as it sounds or am I missing something.

    • mem_somerville

      Hyman is a regular at HuffPo. You can read about his “FLC Syndrome”, or feels like crap–for which you can purchase his 10-day-detox plan.

    • Twylaa

      People keep saying that autism has continued to increase after thimerosal was reduced (though not completely removed) from vaccines. But the latest CDC stats are for babies born in 2002. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html

      It was first suggested in 1999 that maybe it was a bad idea to inject so much mercury into infants. But it wasn’t until March of 2001 that there was an agreement to stop using thimerosal at full preservative level in most infant vaccines. And even then there was no recall. The existing supplies of shots containing thimerosal continued to be used until their expiration dates, some as late as 2004. In 2004 flu shots containing thimerosal were added to the childhood immunization schedule, and the CDC refused to recommend thimerosal-free shots for infants and pregnant women
      http://articles.latimes.com/2005/mar/07/business/f

      California’s law prohibiting shots with more than a trace of thimerosal for pregnant women and children younger than 3 was passed in 2004 and took effect July 1, 2006.
      http://articles.latimes.com/2006/apr/10/nation/na-

      So it is premature to say that we know whether the rate of autism has gone down since thimerosal was decreased in vaccines.

      In addition, the CDC stats referenced above do not differentiate between severe and milder cases of autism, so one cannot draw conclusions about whether thimerosal impacted the severity.

      And, the same people who say that the continuing increase in autism proves thimerosal safe also say that the huge obvious increase in autism over the past 30 years is due to heightened awareness and better diagnosis. We have had so much publicity of autism during the past ten years. For example, Autism Speaks was founded in 2005, and they have devoted enormous resources to their “Learn the Signs” and “Maybe” awareness campaigns. Why are vaccine defenders so sure of a recent increase in autism, but discount prior increases as simply better diagnosis? And I have not seen any of these statements of a recent increase accompanied by actual statistics or sources.

      • Matt Carey

        “So it is premature to say that we know whether the rate of autism has gone down since thimerosal was decreased in vaccines.”

        No, it is not.

        CDC data were not the data used to “prove” that thimerosal was causing the increase. People relied upon CDDS data–California Department of Developmental Services.

        CDDS statistics have shown a steady increase, even after the removal of thimerosal.

        “And I have not seen any of these statements of a recent increase accompanied by actual statistics or sources.”

        Seems odd that you, who claim to be up on vaccine autism research, have not only ignored the CDDS data, but the paper:

        Continuing increases in autism reported to California’s developmental services system: mercury in retrograde.

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18180424

        Let me oblige with more data.

        http://leftbrainrightbrain.co.uk/2013/02/26/no-the-autism-prevalence-in-california-did-not-go-down-after-removing-thimerosal-from-vaccines/

        The same data source used to “show” thimerosal causes autism point clearly away from that idea.

  • Tom Scharf

    Looks like you are moving up in the world. Congratulations.

    The problem I have with autism is that it is a vague diagnosis and a judgment call, the “autism spectrum” and all that.

    It is unclear how much of this is simply more fear and more diagnoses being done with borderline cases being counted more often, and how much might be real.

    The assumption that if it is real it must be chemically or environmentally induced is also dubious.

    These type of efforts are full of correlation = causation science.

    • JH

      “It is unclear how much of this is simply more fear and more diagnoses being done with borderline cases being counted more often, and how much might be real”

      I’m guessing if you spend some time with autistic children you’d say “oh…OK…got it.” It’s pretty real.

      • Tom Scharf

        I’m not claiming autism isn’t real, just wondering how much of the increase in autism is related to the changing standards and public awareness.

  • mmiddle

    He may be confusing legal standards of evidence (eg reasonable or preponderant) with scientific standards (closer to 99% certainty).

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      Trust me, he doesn’t confuse them at all. He well knows the difference. He’s talked to me about it.

    • Tom Scharf

      There is also a “clear and convincing” legal standard. Maybe 90% certain or so? Anyone who has entered the patent law mess will have suffered due to this threshold.

  • Matt Carey

    It is difficult to describe the sort of harm that Kennedy caused within the autism community with his “deadly immunity” article, nearly 10 years ago.
    To put it simply, tens of thousands of parents were convinced that they had helped injure their own children into lifelong disability. Kennedy had a lot of help, but his name lent a lot of credibility to this story.
    Autistic children grow up with the message that they are “broken” and that they can earn their parents’ approval by becoming non-autistic.
    A cadre of charlatans–some believers, some dishonest–has grown to help cure “vaccine injury” with all manner of therapies. Disabled children are forced to repeatedly drink a bleach solution or repeatedly take bleach enemas. Disabled children are given strong drugs to shut down their sex hormone production, essentially chemically castrating them. Disabled children are given round after round after round of DIY chelation therapy–which in animal models has been shown to *cause* impairments.
    Kennedy fed all that. Again, he had help. A lot of help. But without him, the idea would not have had the momentum it had.

  • lilady R.N.

    Less than four months ago, an article appeared on the Medical News Today blog and Mr. Kennedy posted the first comment. He claimed once again, that he is not “anti-vaccine”, yet he still clings to the now thoroughly debunked theory that the preservative Thimerosal which was formerly used in multi dose vials of vaccines, caused autism.

    Mr. Kennedy also claimed that he was preparing a book, with the assistance of some co-authors which would prove that government officials, staff at the NIH, public health officials and physicians have engaged in a concerted effort, to hide the purported deleterious effects of Thimerosal.

    I, and several other commenters, posted comments and asked Mr. Kennedy to provide the proof for his audacious, inflammatory and defamatory remarks which besmirch the reputations of respected scientists, researchers and physicians. Mr. Kennedy has not replied:

    http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/opinions/174696

    Mr. Kennedy is an attorney and an officer of the Court and he darn well should know that he has defamed respected scientists, researchers and physicians with his crass yellow journalism and with his provocative speeches.

    • Lucy Brenton

      Anyone still vaccinating their kids is stupid. Vaccines kill and maim. If there weren’t so much checkbook science and people weren’t so gullible and naive independent thinking parents would long ago have woken up. It is the cultural programming which causes so many to blindly follow…and sadly when they experience the death or disability of their child, their eyes are finally opened. You don’t have to be a scientist to figure out that injecting poison into a baby is a bad idea. Want good health? Eat organic food, drink pure water, breathe clean air and exercise. Anything else only interferes with our wonderful biology.

      • lilady R.N.

        And, your proof for all your pseudoscience opinions, would be…?

      • Dorit Reiss

        While nothing is 100% safe, the evidence is very clear that the harms of modern vaccines are very small, and much smaller than the harms of the diseases. Most recently, this was supported by this extensive review of adverse events:

        Margaret A. Maglione, et al., Safety of Vaccines Used for Routine Immunization of US Children: A Systematic Review, doi: 10.1542/peds.2014-1079 PEDIATRICS (2014).

        • Lucy Brenton

          Dorit, you’re a joke. Everyone knows you’re a shill…and that you are trying to attack the personal freedom of parents to avoid vaccines…and avoid permanently harming their children by the poisoned needles of those who pay you. Everyone knows what you are trying to do…SMH….claiming that the unvaccinated are a potential threat to the vaccinated. If your vaccines worked, then you wouldn’t need boosters, kids wouldn’t die within hours of getting the shots, or suffer from permanent brain disability and death…all to avoid a few measles spots or chicken pox. You and those like you who sold your souls for an imaginary concept – money – are doomed. We don’t accept your BS and we will continue to fight you. Hahaha, keep citing articles from publications that are aimed at a group who only make money if you vaccinate your kids. That’s not transparent at all, no conflict of interest, keep moving, nothing to see here. hahahaahaha!

          • Dorit Reiss

            A. I note the lack of actual evidence in your post.

            B. Why are the unvaccinated a threat? First, because there are those too young to be vaccinated. Second, because there are those with medical conditions which prevent vaccination. Third, since some percentage of those vaccinated suffer vaccine failure. Though while you’re right that the main victims of non-vaccination are the unvaccinated children themselves, left exposed to diseases, they are not the only one.

            C. Measles has a 30% rate of complications, including death, encephalitis, and deafness. Chicken pox can also, more rarely, lead to severe complications. And I note you did not mention diphtheria, HiB, and polio.

            D. Again, vaccines can have serious side effects, but those are extremely rare. The risks of vaccinating are much smaller than the risks of not vaccinating.

            E. I hope that most parents are, in fact, interested in the science – science that comes from all over the world, from different groups. Because most parents want to protect their children. They may be misled by anti-vaccine misinformation into a wrong decision, but providing them with the data should help.

          • Lucy Brenton

            Dorit, the many headed hydra. You know, Dorit, many of us have remarked upon how quickly you respond to posts everywhere. Analysis has been done and discovered that it is pretty much impossible for one person to post with the frequency you manage. In addition, so many of your posts are merely talking points, regurgitation and manufacturer BS that it is clear who your handlers are…and that they have bought you help.

            While I, and other pro-health parents who are vaccine skeptics receive no compensation from any industry, we are ridiculed by those who do.

            Facts are: vaccines contain poisonous ingredients. They will not touch me or my children. If you want to poison you and yours, that is your prerogative.

            We will continue to fight you. Admittedly, it is hard to fight an industry that makes
            BILLIONS of dollars, that bribed enough members of congress in the US to get a complete exemption from liability from vaccines and has the means to hire shills like yourself to overtalk and shout down we the rational.

            That’s OK, because truth trumps your lies. Millions of moms have children in therapy or caskets because of the poison your handlers sell. Those moms have been talking and your industry is doomed. The sleeping moms have awakened…and the playgrounds are full of moms sharing their stories, their evidence and warning the rest to avoid your toxic products.

            The truth is the truth. You sit atop an empire of lies…I can’t wait until your whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

          • Dorit Reiss

            A. As I pointed out before, nobody pays me to comment about vaccines online.

            B. None of the ingredients in vaccines is harmful in the tiny amounts in vaccines. http://www.chop.edu/system/galleries/download/pdfs/articles/vaccine-education-center/vaccine-ingredients.pdf

            C. I’m sorry to hear you refuse to protect your children. I hope herd immunity keeps protecting them against disease, and am happy to do my share to keep them, and other unvaccinated children, safe by protecting my own child.

            D. The truth is the truth. It does not run to fanciful conspiracy theories. The truth is that vaccines’ small risks are dwarfed by the risks of not vaccinating.

          • Lucy Brenton

            Yes, I refuse to allow MSG, formaldehyde, the cells from aborted babies, monkey viruses and other noxious substances directly injected into my precious childrens’ capillary beds. You keep on poisoning yours, though. Herd immunity? What a joke. We aren’t cattle. Humans are not confined to a pen, we travel everywhere. And by the way, herd immunity is admittedly ONLY when natural immunity, true, real immunity – has been achieved.

            Your right, the truth is the truth … which is why you don’t fool anyone. Your posts speak only lies….trying to fool the unconvinced into keeping those BILLIONS in profitable vaccine sales going.

            There is no conspiracy. It’s out in the open.

          • Dorit Reiss

            MSG is in a lot of foods, your children make formaldehyde as part of their own metabolism, there are no cells in vaccines and so forth. In contrast to the natural ingredients in small quantities in vaccines, the bacterias that cause tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough emit real toxins – which vaccines can protect children against.

            Yes, hopefully herd immunity can protect your children, in spite of your choice not to protect them. Here is a list of studies that show its effect from vaccines, showing that it is incorrect to say it is only achieved via natural immunity: https://www.facebook.com/notes/chillin-out-vaxin-relaxin-all-cool/published-studies-demonstrating-the-effect-of-herd-immunity/644388308958430.

          • Lucy Brenton

            Injection is VASTLY different than injection. Broccoli purée, even organic, isn’t going to be directly injected into my child’s capillary bed. Your digestion system has evolved to handle many toxins, ushering them out of the body without permanent harm, injecting anything is just plain stupid.

            If you really believe vaccines are good, then get them for you and yours. However, Dorit, we know your real agenda. Your agenda is to remove all choice from people, in the guise of public health. We know it’s a sham. Your true agenda is crystal clear: more profits.

            Original Antigenic Sin. Readers, google it…and discover why the pertussis vaccine is a failure and only creates partial immunity and lifelong carriers of this disease. By the way, I have survived the dreaded whooping cough, as have my children. I am grateful we have developed true natural immunity…not the fraudulent partial immunity served with a risk of permanent disability and death by vaccine manufacturers.

          • Dorit Reiss

            A. Vaccines are not injected directly into the blood stream, so that too is incorrect.

            B. The food that goes through your digestive system ends up in your blood stream. Your kidneys and liver remove problematic stuff from there and from vaccines. Injection is different from ingestion – but the amounts in vaccines are so tiny that the amount is still insignificant and way below what you’re exposed to from other sources.

            C. Thank you, I do vaccinate me and mine, protecting us and also children whose parents deny protection. But: 1. children do not deserve to be left at the mercy of diseases like whooping cough – I’m sorry to hear your children suffered through it – or like HiB, measles, and polio. Educating people about vaccines and countering anti-vaccine misinformation can help protect children. 2. Less children vaccinated puts everyone at risk by undermining herd immunity.

            D. You do know that natural immunity from pertussis is not life long, right? In contrast, while the pertussis vaccine wanes faster than scientists expected, it offers decent short term protection – and it does not create carriers of the disease. In fact, the unvaccinated are much more likely – 9-23 times more likely – to have and transmit it.

          • lilady R.N.

            Whoops. Whooping Cough is caused by a bacterium (Bordetella pertussis) and the immunity from the vaccine and the immunity from “the natural disease” which you deliberately exposed your children to, wanes.

            (Immunology 101 and Bacteriology 101)

          • lilady R.N.

            You’re vicious and nasty and a science illiterate…the perfect stooge for Mr. Kennedy’s latest anti-vaccine message.

            How many vaccines have you ever administered?

            How many children infected with a vaccine-preventable-disease have you ever cared for?

            What experience do you have working in a health care setting?

            During my tenure as a public health nurse clinician-epidemiologist, I administered thousands of vaccines and never observed an immediate severe reaction or a delayed severe adverse reaction/event…and none of the ~ 40 other clinicians (doctors and nurses), who were my colleagues at a large suburban health department, have ever witnessed an immediate or delayed adverse event associated with a vaccine.

            Vaccines.Do.Not.Cause.Autism.Or. Any.Other.Developmental.Disability.Or.
            Childhood.Disorder.Period.

          • Lucy Brenton

            But the manufacturer says it causes autism. Right here on page 11.

            Adverse events reported during post-approval use of Tripedia vaccine include idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, SIDS, anaphylactic reaction, cellulitis, autism, convulsion/grand mal convulsion, encephalopathy, hypotonia, neuropathy, somnolence and apnea. Events were included in this list because of the seriousness or frequency of reporting.”

            http://www.fda.gov/downloads/BiologicsBloodVaccines/Vaccines/ApprovedProducts/ucm101580.pdf

          • lilady R.N.

            See my reply about vaccine safety monitoring:

            http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/Vaccine_Monitoring/Index.html

          • Lucy Brenton

            I am vicious and nasty against people who want to harm children, like YOU. and Dorit.

            I have never, ever administered a vaccine. I would never, ever harm a child. Maybe you can inject something into a child that can kill it, but I am a mother and love children. I would never, ever do that to a child.

            Funny, I do have experience in a healthcare setting.

            Just because you say you administered thousands of vaccines and never observed an immediate reaction, doesn’t make it true. In fact, I am sure Josef Mengele would have said that he in fact worked in public health, just like you. And his victims suffered, no doubt, as some of the victims of your poisoned needles.

            The. Manufacturer. Inserts. Say.Vaccines.Do.Cause.Autism.And.Other.
            Developmental.Disabilities. And.Guillain. Barre.And.Alopecia.And.I.Would.Continue.But.
            I’d.Be.Here.All.Day.And.Single.Words.Followed.
            By.A.Period.Do.Not.A.Scientific.Argument.Make
            .Period

            As Vulcans would say…die quickly and fail.

          • Lucy Brenton

            It’s been fun exposing you, lilady R.N. and Dorit Reiss for the paid shills and hacks that you are, but it is time for me to go pursue my capitalist endeavors.

          • lilady R.N.

            You’ve just defamed Professor Reiss who is a respected law school professor and a child advocate.

            Good grief. You are ignorant and undereducated in basic science.

          • Lucy Brenton

            Truth is an absolute defense against defamation. And by the way, a true child advocate would not recommend injecting a child with a product when the manufacturer clearly discloses that the product can do the following (from page 11 of the insert linked below)

            “Adverse events reported during post-approval use of Tripedia vaccine include idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, SIDS, anaphylactic reaction, cellulitis, autism, convulsion/grand mal convulsion, encephalopathy, hypotonia, neuropathy, somnolence and apnea. Events were included in this list because of the seriousness or frequency of reporting.”

            http://www.fda.gov/downloads/BiologicsBloodVaccines/Vaccines/ApprovedProducts/ucm101580.pdf

      • Matt Carey

        “Anyone still vaccinating their kids is stupid.”
        Thank you for showing the mindset that Kennedy is feeding.

        • Lucy Brenton

          Truth hurts, it’s still the truth. Injecting a cocktail of toxic substances that should never be ingested, let alone injected, into the human body IS STUPID. Then parents wonder why little Johnny has ASD, learning disabilities, seizures, etc….DUH, when you inject poison into your child’s capillary bed, the inflammatory response is going to follow. White blood cells are bigger than red blood cells, potentially blocking the red cells from delivering oxygen to tissue. Stroke is the result. Executive Reasoning dot com has videos of Dr. Andrew Moulden. His groundbreaking research compares children on the spectrum who have facial droops, indicating strokes, just as a facial droop in a geriatric patient can be evidence of a stroke.
          Poisoned needles will never go near my children.

          • lilady R.N.

            Do try to get some basic information about immunology, virology, bacteriology and epidemiology before you post any more of your nonsensical comments here.

      • lilady R.N.

        Anyone who doesn’t vaccinate their children is just plain ignorant.

        There are multiple websites available on the internet which provide reliable parent-centered information about vaccines and the serious, oftentimes deadly, diseases that vaccines prevent.

  • mmiddle

    It sounds kind of like this episode from This American Life, about the guy who was convinced he had disproved Einstein:
    http://m.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/293/a-little-bit-of-knowledge?act=3#act-3

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

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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