Aluminum: The New Thimerosal?

November 30, 2017

Thimerosal was eliminated from the majority of childhood vaccines but rates of autism continued to climb. What do you know about the new culprit, aluminum?

Every medical specialty dreads hearing certain things from patients.

For the dermatologist it might be, “Doctor, why can't you make this wart go away?”

For the neurologist it may be, “I have had a headache every day now for 10 years.”

For the internist it’s likely, “Why am I tired all the time?"

But one opening statement from a patient puts dread in the hearts of providers of every specialty: “Doctor, I have been doing a little research on the Internet and. . . ”

The anti-vaxxer's main way to communicate is the Internet. Anyone can write anything and make it look very “scientific” with the use of references from bogus sources or from valid sources taken out of context. (Fake news did not start with the current administration.) But I can’t blame it all on the World Wide Web. Bob Sears, MD, has written a widely read book that advocates spacing out the vaccines to reduce the “burden” of aluminum from the vaccines.

The original thimerosal
Mercury in thimerosal, a preservative used in multidose vaccine vials, was purported to be the cause of the increased incidence of autism as children were exposed to more and more vaccines. In an attempt to reduce these fears, all childhood vaccines (with the exception of multidose flu vials) became single dose and thimerosal-free. The incidence of autism continued to climb despite the change. With that straw horse removed, some anti-vaxxers have found a new element to blame for autism: aluminum, which is found in most vaccines that contain an adjuvant. Most inactivated vaccines do contain an aluminum salt that boosts the immune response.

Too much aluminum causes toxicity in 2 settings:

  • In preterm infants receiving parental nutrition
  • In adults with long standing kidney failure taking large doses of aluminum-containing antacids. (A single dose contains about 1,000 times more aluminum than found in a dose of vaccine.)

Both these groups have poor renal function: most aluminum is removed from the body quickly via the kidneys.
 
In the first 6 months of life a child receives about 4 mg of aluminum from vaccines. Which of the following statements is incorrect?

A.  A newborn has no detectable aluminum in his/her bloodstream
B.  A breast-fed baby receives about 10 mg of aluminum in the first 6 months of life
C.  A formula-fed baby receives between 40 and 120 mg of aluminum in the first 6 months of life
D.  No measurable change in blood aluminum levels is seen after vaccine administration

Please click "next" below for answer and discussion.

The correct answer is: A. A newborn has no detectable aluminum in his/her bloodstream (Incorrect)

All humans have detectable aluminum in their blood stream from dietary sources.

Anti-vaxxers can correctly argue that only about 1% of injected aluminum gets adsorbed into the body from the GI tract and that some aluminum not excreted ends up being deposited in the brain. Aluminum continues to accumulate in our bodies throughout our lives: 50 mg to 100 mg is found in adults. One percent of this is in the brain; most, 50% to 60%, is in the bones.

The father of toxicology, Paracelsus, wrote during the 1500s, “All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” When I try to explain this concept to a parent, I tell them, “Every time you drink a glass of water, you are ingesting a chemical that can cause low blood sodium levels that can lead to seizures and even death.” As their eyes widen, they often ask how to avoid it. I explain the chemical I am talking about is – the water. The dose makes the poison. Before humans show toxicity from aluminum, blood levels have to be 100 times that of the normal blood level.
 

Resources

* CHOP also offers a variety of other pro-vaccine pads that address a variety of vaccine concerns.
* The FDA statement on aluminum in vaccines can be accessed here.
* A report from the Federal government's National Vaccine Program Office that examined evidence on aluminum in vaccines and found the current vaccine schedule to be safe can be accessed here.