The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘mercury militia’

FDA: Mercury Fillings Safe; Mercury Militia Goes Nuts

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 29, 2009

Good for the FDA!  🙂  After that last blog post it’s nice to see some good news.  Of course, this research simply affirms what we (you know, the folks who follow science as applied to medicine) have known all along.  But to the “mercury militia” or other purveyors of anti-science-based “medical” nonsense, it will do little to sway them.  I can’t wait to see the backlash from the alt-med woosters on this one…

Mercury in dental fillings not risky, officials say

The U.S. government declared Tuesday that silver dental fillings contain too little mercury to harm the millions of Americans who have had cavities filled with them — including young children — and that only people allergic to mercury need to avoid them.

It was something of an about-face for the Food and Drug Administration, which last year settled a lawsuit with anti-mercury activists by posting on its Web site a precaution saying questions remained about whether the small amount of mercury vapor the fillings can release were enough to harm the developing brains of fetuses or the very young.

On Tuesday, the FDA said its final scientific review ended that concern. Still, the agency did slightly strengthen how it regulates the fillings, urging dentists to provide their patients with a government-written statement detailing the mercury controversy and what science shows.

Waiting for the alt-med “Big Government, Big Pharmaconspiracy-mongering machine to start up in… 3… 2… 1…

Anti-mercury activists accused the agency of bowing to the dental industry and said they would go back to court to try to force a change.

“FDA broke its contract and broke its word that it would put warnings for children and unborn children,” said Charles Brown of Consumers for Dental Choice. “This contemptuous attitude toward children and the unborn will not go unanswered.”

Whoops, too late.  Yup, that’s right folks, the FDA is out to kill children!  Aaagghh!!!

Give me a break… reasoning with nutbags like this is like pulling teeth.

Posted in environmental hysteria, medical woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Shout Out: An Open Letter to Oprah

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 17, 2009

In keeping with Carl Sagan’s adage that it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness, I want to pass along something which I think does just that.  I recently blogged about Oprah Winfrey’s ill-conceived decision to give anti-vaccinationist Jenny McCarthy her own show.

Personally, I have been at a loss as to how to respond – but fortunately, Shirley at the “I was lost but now I live here” blog has a great response, and I wanted to share it with you here.  Please consider passing it along, so that perhaps we can get Oprah to rethink her decision…

An Open Letter to Oprah

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in medical woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Oprah Winfrey Gives Platform to Anti-Vax Movement

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 7, 2009

Oh boy, this is not good news.  It seems that media mogul and daytime diva Oprah Winfrey has given a platform to the face of the anti-vaccination movement, Jenny McCarthy, by giving McCarthy her own show.  I cannot even begin to express how colossally stupid this is…


Jenny McCarthy inks deal with Winfrey’s Harpo

McCarthy has inked a multi-year deal with Winfrey’s Harpo Prods. to develop projects on different platforms, including a syndicated talk show that the actress/author would host.

The first collaboration under the pact is a blog by McCarthy on, which launched Friday. Like other Winfrey proteges-turned-TV moguls, among them Rachael Ray and Dr. Phil, McCarthy has been a frequent guest on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

McCarthy talked to the chat queen about her struggles with her son’s autism in conjunction with the publication of her best-selling books “Louder Than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism” and “Mother Warriors: A Nation of Parents Healing Autism Against All Odds.” McCarthy also has participated twice in Winfrey’s Friday Live panels, most recently this past Friday.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in medical woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Jenny McCarthy: When Ignorance Kills

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 31, 2009

When it comes to woo & pseudoscientific nonsense, there are times when it is just an annoyance. And then there are times when such ignorance can literally kill. Such is the case with the anti-vaccination movement (AVM).

The anti-vaxxers have found a celebrity spokesperson in Jenny McCarthy, former Playboy playmate and squeeze of actor Jim Carrey. Jenny’s son, Evan, was diagnosed with autism and she has since blamed his being vaccinated as the cause of his autism. Never mind that there is no evidence whatsoever that vaccines cause autism or the other horrible things espoused by the AVM, Jenny continues her anti-vax crusade, appearing on talk shows and in other venues spouting her nonsense.

**Aside: Keep a watchful eye out for an organization which McCarthy promotes – Generation Rescue – because this group is essentially a front for the AVM and other dangerous medical woo-woo.

Well, this is really bad, because the ignorance that Jenny McCarthy and the AVM spreads can be lethal. As an illustration of this fact, there is a new website online called Jenny McCarthy Body Count.

jenny mccarthy

While this site does not blame her directly for the deaths accounted for there, it does state (and I think correctly) that her actions as the public face of the AVM has contributed to the hysteria against vaccinations and hence the spread of diseases which would otherwise be kept in check.

As the website states on its front page…

In June 2007 Jenny McCarthy began promoting anti-vaccination rhetoric. Because of her celebrity status she has appeared on several television shows and has published multiple books advising parents not to vaccinate their children. This has led to a dramatic increase in the number of vaccine preventable illnesses as well as an increase in the number of vaccine preventable deaths.

Jenny McCarthy has a body count attached to her name. This website will publish the total number of vaccine preventable illnesses and vaccine preventable deaths that have happened since June 2007 when she began publicly speaking out against vaccines.

Is Jenny McCarthy directly responsible for every vaccine preventable illness and every vaccine preventable death listed here? No. However, as the unofficial spokesperson for the United States anti-vaccination movement she may be indirectly responsible for at least some of these illnesses and deaths and even one vaccine preventable illness or vaccine preventable death is too many.

Since June of 2007 and as of this writing, the website documents the following numbers – verified through the Centers for Disease Control

Number of Preventable Cases: 720
Number of Preventable Deaths: 142

Fortunately, not everyone in Hollywood is as ignorant & dangerous as Jenny McCarthy in their promotion of woo – there are those who are willing to take her and her AVM ilk head on and call them out on their deadly nonsense. I’m speaking specifically of actress Amanda Peet, who in an article last year publicly took the AVM to task…

Peet’s analytical urges are comical when she’s talking about kids’ gear, but not when she’s discussing a subject she feels is among today’s most pressing public-health issues: infant vaccinations. “As soon as I was pregnant, the neuroses kicked in,” says Peet, 36, who is married to screenwriter David Benioff. She began calling her older sister’s husband, a Philadelphia pediatrician, “every five minutes” with all kinds of questions, especially about shots. “I asked him, ‘Why are all of these necessary? Why are some people staggering them?’?” Eventually her brother-in-law arranged a series of phone calls between Peet and his own mentor, Paul Offit, M.D., who is chief of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine, and a board member of Every Child by Two, a pro-vaccine organization cofounded in 1991 by former first lady Rosalynn Carter.

“Once we had spoken, I was shocked at the amount of misinformation floating around, particularly in Hollywood,” says Peet, who quickly boned up on the hot-button controversies surrounding the topic, including the unproven link between certain vaccines and autism; the safety of preservatives like mercury-based thimerosal; and the fear that the relatively high number of shots kids receive today can overwhelm young immune systems. Her conclusion? Well, not only is Frankie up-to-date on her vaccines (with no staggering), but her mom will soon appear in public-service announcements for Every Child by Two. “I buy 99 percent organic food for Frankie, and I don’t like to give her medicine or put sunscreen on her,” says Peet. “But now that I’ve done my research, vaccines do not concern me.” What does concern her is the growing number of unvaccinated children who are benefiting from the “shield” created by the inoculated—we are protected from viruses only if everyone, or most everyone, is immunized: “Frankly, I feel that parents who don’t vaccinate their children are parasites.”

Incidentally, here are two great websites out there on this whole vaccination issue – one is called Stop Jenny McCarthy, and it has more info about the AVM & autism specifically, and the other is Every Child by Two, a pro-vaccination group which Amanda Peet supports and promotes. If you are at all interested in getting more informed about the AVM and how to tackle its bogus & dangerous woo, I suggest you check them out.

Posted in medical woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

CFLs and Mercury Militia Hysteria

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 6, 2009

Yesterday I taught my students about the dissipation of energy in electrical circuits. As part of the lesson we calculated how much energy it takes to use a compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL) in comparison to a standard incandescent bulb. CFLs are great: they provide the same amount of visible light for about 1/4 the energy input, they don’t produce much waste heat, and while they are a bit more expensive to buy they last about 10 times longer than incandescents. So replacing old incandescents with CFLs is a great way to save both money & energy, the latter of which helps to combat carbon emissions and global warming.


So, given all of these great benefits of using CFLs, you would think that everyone would be falling all over themselves promoting the technology, right? Sadly, the answer is no, and the following story illustrates why not.

Later in the day I was hanging around in my science office, talking with some of my colleagues. I brought up the subject of my lesson with a couple of them and how I was encouraging the kids to replace old bulbs with CFLs. One of my colleagues, a science teacher, went a little nuts and said she’d never put CFLs in her house. The reason why not: the mercury in CFLs… argh!

While mercury can be a toxic substance (if a lot is inhaled while in it’s vapor form), the levels of mercury found in CFLs is very small. According to the Energy Star program (a joint effort of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy)…

CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing – an average of 4 milligrams. By comparison, older thermometers contain about 500 milligrams of mercury – an amount equal to the mercury in 125 CFLs. Mercury is an essential part of CFLs; it allows the bulb to be an efficient light source. No mercury is released when the bulbs are intact (not broken) or in use.

Most makers of light bulbs have reduced mercury in their fluorescent lighting products. Thanks to technology advances and a commitment from members of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, the average mercury content in CFLs has dropped at least 20 percent in the past year. Some manufacturers have even made further reductions, dropping mercury content to 1.4 – 2.5 milligrams per light bulb.

So, the amount of mercury contained in these CFLs is extremely small, far smaller than what would be needed to harm a human. But if you happen to break one, what do you do? Well, it’s pretty easy to clean up a broken CFL, according to the EPA – it pretty much consists of ventilating the room for about 15 minutes and cleaning up the broken parts.

Why is it that some people, even supposedly well-educated folks with a background in science, get so damned freaked out by mercury? Well, many whackjobs in the environmental movement have been making pseudoscientific hay about mercury for many years – these folks are what I like to call the “Mercury Militia”. They glom onto mercury as the cause of all manner of nastiness, regardless of dosage levels & concentrations, including blaming mercury amalgam fillings for teeth for various health problems and insisting that some vaccines containing minute amounts of mercury cause childhood autism. And none of that nonsense is true!

And then, of course, another reason why some people get roped into the anti-mercury hysteria is because of bogus stories like this one from WorldNet Daily, which scares the hell out of people who might use CFLs in their house. Unfortunately, just because someone forwards a scary sounding “news” article to your email doesn’t mean it has any real validity. For example, has a great analysis & debunking of many claims made by the anti-mercury crowd in that WND article.

But the fear-mongering by some extreme nutjobs is worse than just spreading a lack of critical thinking, because it actually results in more mercury being released into the environment – that’s right, more mercury! According to this fact sheet from Energy Star…

EPA estimates the U.S. is responsible for the release of 104 metric tons of mercury emissions each year. Most of these emissions come from coal-fired electrical power. Mercury released into the air is the main way that mercury gets into water and bio-accumulates in fish. (Eating fish contaminated with mercury is the main way for humans to be exposed.)

Most mercury vapor inside fluorescent light bulbs becomes bound to the inside of the light bulb as it is used. EPA estimates that the rest of the mercury within a CFL – about 14 percent – is released into air or water when it is sent to a landfill, assuming the light bulb is broken. Therefore, if all 290 million CFLs sold in 2007 were sent to a landfill (versus recycled, as a worst case) – they would add 0.16 metric tons, or 0.16 percent, to U.S. mercury emissions caused by humans.

So, long story short, by not using CFLs we are actually pumping more mercury into the environment because using a less-efficient incandescent bulb wastes so much more energy that is mostly generated by coal-fired power plants in the United States. And those coal-fired plants spew way more mercury into the environment than all the CFLs on the planet could ever come close to doing!

Thus, the Mercury Militia and those whom they have frightened into buying their bogus b.s. are actually making the situation worse. It is not only costing people more money to use wasteful incandescents, but it is also contributing to higher mercury emissions!

The irony is so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Posted in environmental hysteria | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Good News: Anti-Vaccination Nuts Lose, Big Time

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 13, 2009

One of the more recent & despicable forms of woo that has come out over the last few years is that of anti-vaccination or vaccine denial. It all started back in the late 1990s when a researcher named Dr. Andrew Wakefield claimed that he had discovered a connection between administrations of the MMR vaccine and incidence of autism in young children.

mmr vaccine

At this point, I think it is very important to note that Wakefield’s work has just recently been shown to have been the product of fraud. Here are some key points at that link…

The doctor who sparked the scare over the safety of the MMR vaccine for children changed and misreported results in his research, creating the appearance of a possible link with autism, a Sunday Times investigation has found.

Confidential medical documents and interviews with witnesses have established that Andrew Wakefield manipulated patients’ data, which triggered fears that the MMR triple vaccine to protect against measles, mumps and rubella was linked to the condition.

Despite involving just a dozen children, the 1998 paper’s impact was extraordinary. After its publication, rates of inoculation fell from 92% to below 80%. Populations acquire “herd immunity” from measles when more than 95% of people have been vaccinated.

So the original research which supposedly showed an autism-vaccine connection was faked! And this revelation comes as no surprise considering as how literally a decade of medical research since then has clearly shown there is no connection between the incidence of autism and vaccination.

But this evidence matters little to some people who have used this supposed “connection” as a way to further their anti-science ideology – which is what is particularly disturbing about Wakefield’s fraud. When his work was publicized in 1998, it started what Dr. Steven Novella of Skepticblog refers to as the “Mercury Militia” – a pseudoscientific movement to ban all mercury (in the form of the vaccine preservative thimerisol) from vaccines. Worse yet, it also helped to spawn something even worse – the modern Anti-Vax movement which maintains that vaccines don’t work, are not necessary, and are just part of a conspiracy by “Big Pharma” and the government to get our money.

Unfortunately, the anti-vaxxers have some star power on their side. A good example is Jenny McCarthy and her boyfriend Jim Carrey – McCarthy has drunk the anti-vax Kool Aid big time and is thoroughly convinced that her son’s autism was caused by him getting vaccinated. So she has become the de facto celebrity spokeswoman for promoting the anti-vax nonsense, appearing on talk shows like Oprah, Larry King Live, etc. But despite the level of righteousness she feels in her cause, Jenny McCarthy is dead wrong!

jenny mccarthy

Thanks to the efforts of idiots like McCarthy and other anti-vaxxers, the rates of childhood vaccine use have dropped significantly in both the United States and United Kingdom – with predictable results. In areas where parents refuse to vaccinate their kids, out of the false fears spread by the anti-vaxxers, diseases that were once basically wiped out have started to have a resurgence. Here’s two articles on this point…

In the United States
Vaccine refusals fuel jump in measles outbreaks

… and in the United Kingdom
Rise in measles ‘very worrying’

This is bad, folks. This is bad because this is a perfect example of how accepting pseudoscientific nonsense can actually adversely affect the health of people or even possibly get them killed.

Fortunately, in addition to the recent revelation of Wakefield’s fraud, there is some other good news. It seems that an anti-vax parent lobby was recently attempting to sue in federal court for compensation from the U.S. government because they claimed that getting their children vaccinated through government programs led to their kids’ autism. They just lost the argument – the special court, after a thorough review of all the scientific & medical research on the question of an autism-vaccine link, concluded that no such link exists…

The evidence “is weak, contradictory and unpersuasive,” concluded Special Master Denise Vowell. “Sadly, the petitioners in this litigation have been the victims of bad science conducted to support litigation rather than to advance medical and scientific understanding” of autism.

So there you have it. The anti-vax nuts have lost in two big ways: the creator of their movement has been publicly discredited as a fraud, and they have lost in court cases to push their claims. And we know why – because there is nothing to their claims, however heartfelt they may be, that vaccinations cause childhood autism.

However, I think the reaction from the anti-vaccination true believers such as Jenny McCarthy is predictable. Rather than accept the findings of the scientific & medical communities, as well as the federal courts, on this subject, the hardcore anti-vaxxers will likely spin the renewed scrutiny of Wakefield’s fraud and the court findings as part of a vast, widespread conspiracy – which is usually the last resort of true believers when their backs are against the wall.

Hopefully, those parents who are on the fence will evaluate these findings in a rational manner and get their kids vaccinated. Let’s hope so, for their kids’ sake.

Posted in medical woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

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