Wednesday, May 28, 2008


I am a label reader. Whenever I'm thinking about buying food in a box, which is rare, I typically read the whole label to look for sinister ingredients. So when I got a booster vaccine for tetanus last week, naturally I asked for the product information.

Along with a nice dose of tetanus and diphtheria toxoids, my medial deltoid received 0.28 mg of aluminum, up to 0.3 micrograms of mercury, and up to 100 micrograms of "residual formaldehyde". I got the vaccine because I like being able to chew, but I wasn't able to lift my arm for several days. I don't know if that was due to an immune response to the tetanus and diphtheria (probably) or if it was caused by the aluminum, mercury and formaldehyde they injected into my arm.

We work with formaldehyde in my lab, and I can tell you it is not to be messed with. I had to take an entire training course just to use it, during which I learned that if there's enough of it to smell, it's toxic. 0.1 parts per million in the air is enough to cause a burning sensation in the mucous membranes. We always use it in the fume hood. Formaldehyde is a toxin, a carcinogen, and a teratogen (causes birth defects). So I'm sure you'll understand why I wasn't too happy about having 100 ug of it injected into my body.

I'm not criticizing the concept of vaccines, I just wish they'd make more of an effort to clean them up!


Jeff said...

It seems crazy that you would knowingly inject those substances into your body. Have you done the research into vaccinations (they're bad science) and tetanus specifically?


Anna said...

I always wonder about the long-term safety of the women who work in nail salons (the patrons, too, but the workers have a much higher exposure). Lots of potent chemicals are used, often turned into dust with those Dremel-like rotary grinding tools used to prepare touch-up artificial nails. I wonder if anyone has done any studies on the toxic effects, especially on pregnant manicurists and their offspring.

Formaldehyde used to be a common ingredient in nail polish, but perhaps it has been eliminated by now (& perhaps replaced by something else that will later turn out to be nasty).

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Jeffrey,

No I haven't really looked into it, but how would you argue against vaccinating for things like polio and tetanus? It seems to me there are some things it's worth protecting against, even if you have to get poisoned a little. You won't see me getting a flu vaccine though.

Stephan Guyenet said...


That sounds pretty bad. There are so many occupations like that. I wonder about my own exposure to the chemicals I use in lab. We use many compounds whose toxicity is really unknown, especially long-term. I try to be careful but I know I'm getting exposed somewhat. Plus my building has asbestos in it...

Ross said...


In regards to the nail salon employees, actually somebody did do a study! They compared 33 nail salon technicians with 35 age/socioeconomically matched controls who didn't have a recorded history of exposure to the toxic chemicals used in nail salons. The nail technicians showed poorer cognitive ability in tests of attention and processing speed, and also had reduced sense of smell. Strong predictors of how much any one person was effected included length of time working in the field, and size & degree of ventilation of their workplace.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Nice find!

Ross said...

While formaldehyde is dangerous in high doses, our bodies are exposed to (and even create) aldehydes constantly. If you have an alcoholic drink the ethanol is converted into acetaldyhde. And the trace amounts of methanol will be converted to formaldehyde. claims that commercial vodka contains 0.013% methanol. In a 25ml shot that would be about 3 micrograms. So after ~35 drinks (hopefully not all in the same night ;) you've had as much formaldehyde as in one tetanus vaccine. Is that an argument for vaccines or against drinking alcohol? I don't know!

The FDA has up a comprehensive discussion of preservatives in vaccines. I didn't make it through the whole article, but the gist of it seems to be that vaccines without preservatives can grow nasty stuff in them than can make people sick or die. Apparently newer technology in the vaccines and the packaging is making this less of an issue, but its still mandated by law for certain specific types of vaccines. They list how much mercury various types of vaccines have. I hope this link works. If not its linked too off the Wiki page for "vaccine".

I never realized that there was formaldehyde & mercury in vaccine until I read your post. Once again I've learned something here :)

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hey Ross,

Thanks for the info. I do remember now that the liver produces aldehydes from alcohols. I guess part of what I don't like is the fact that the formaldehyde/mercury/aluminum is so localized. It's an 0.5 mL bolus right into my muscle, rather than a gradual release of a metabolic by-product into the blood.

I checked that link; it looks like I was lucky enough to choose a vaccine that contained thimerosal!

Ross said...

Good point about the localization. In 0.5cc that would translate to a local concentration of about 200ppm before diffusion & metabolism kick in. That seems pretty high.

Debs said...

Formaldehyde?! I had no idea. Yikes. But now your arm will be preserved for centuries after you die, right? Maybe it can get put in a museum.

I'm all for some vaccines, but it's another area where public health has not led to public awareness of accurate, nuanced information. The public is trained to think in black and white terms. Vaccines are good because they save lives, ergo let's sign up for as many of them as possible because there can't be any downsides. Or, vaccines are bad because there might be an autism link, so let's avoid them all.

I'm amazed how many vaccinations kids get these days; when I was young, it was just the MMR, polio and a few others. I don't need a million vaccines for minor things, and I won't go near flu shots either.

I'd rather be cautious and selective about vaccines, and advocate for the right to accurate information. Just because a technology is capable of halting devastating, epidemic diseases doesn't mean we should overdose on that technology without thinking critically. Toxic ingredients like mercury and formaldehyde make it more important to weigh the information!

Billy Oblivion said...


Have you ever met a polio survivor?

Or talked to the parents of a child who didn't?

Ever seen anyone in an iron lung?

Or seen smallpox scars on a teenager?

How about heard a child with whooping cough?

Almost no one under 50 has seen the first four.

A whole bunch of idiot parents in Oakland heard those wonderful sounds in that .wav file though. Because they listened to idiots like you and didn't vaccinate their children.

I don't know how many infants were infected--infants usually protected because a sufficient number of people were inoculated such that they never came in contact with the infectious agents.

Vaccines are NOT bad science, some (flu shots) may be of questionable cost/benefit (I only get flu vaccines because it's required by an agency I work with), but the rest are cheap compared to not getting them.

It really chaps my ass that people like you can sit there and spout such ignorant drivel behind the protection of the herd immunity from *responsible* parents.

Billy Oblivion said...


In regards to the Hg, Al, and Formaldehyde--The world is a dirty, toxic place. Our ancestors routinely came in contact with tremendous amounts of crud--we spend about a million generations inhaling massive amounts of particulates and carcinogens from the fires that kept us warm and cooked our food. We got (still get) cuts and punctures from rocks and trees that drive pathogens, organic matter, minerals and metals under our skin, and sometimes into muscle tissue.

We're still here and mostly doing fine.

You're getting more damage from the stress of worrying about it than you are from the injection.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Billy,

Please be respectful to the other commenters. You can speak your mind without being insulting.

I agree that we've always been exposed to toxins and plenty of them. However, we're now being exposed to different classes of toxins that we're not evolved to tolerate.

Look at endocrine disruptors like bispheonol-A that can change the sexual characteristics of mice at extraordinarily low concentrations. I doubt humans are any better protected than mice.

Also, bioaccumulating toxins like dioxins. Those things are highly toxic and stick around in our tissues. Inuit and other big meat-eaters are getting sick from this and mercury contamination. They're just the canaries in the coal mine for the rest of us.

We're used to things like mushroom toxins, plant toxins, bacterial toxins, fire smoke etc. If we survive, we can bounce back. But these industrial toxins have the potential to cripple us slowly, so I'd like to keep away as much as possible.

Anonymous said...

Billy Oblivion, just as you are so passionate about everybody getting a vaccine. I would like to know the answer as to why people who are vaccinated are so paranoid about people that aren't? You're protected then, right? IMO there is enough information for ME to decide not to get any vaccines and honestly I think you're the moron for doing so. The Swine flu has brought back to the surface the wonderfully successful Swine Flu alert of 1976, when Gerald Ford went on Tv and "sold" the benefits. The result; no swine flu, law suits and Guillain-Barre Syndrome. The history of vaccines reads like a horror movie, so forget your preaching. My intelligence is insulted by your declarations and Mary Tocco might just be one to educate you from your ignorance. Somehow, i doubt it.

Jon said...

According to the FDA site, even low-mercury fish contain 0.01-0.02 ppm of mercury, so a 100g serving contains several times as much mercury as the maximum amount specified to be in the vaccine.

If you've ever had a nice big swordfish or king mackerel steak (0.5-1.0 ppm Hg), you've ingested around 1000 times as much mercury as is contained in one tetanus shot, just from that one meal.

Jon said...

...I should add that I'm no fan of mercury in vaccines if it can be avoided (and it usually can).

This is the problem with small amounts of highly toxic substances. Some "small" amounts can be harmful, while other "small" amounts are so small that their effect probably can't even be detected in the body when compared to the baseline.

Iain said...

Bit late to the discussion, but you might want to look at this:

Jamison said...

Also late to this party. Tourist, I would avoid any article that Godwin's itself in the first couple paragraphs.

Stephen, I often argue in favor of reductionism but this is a case where I would rather urge looking at the bigger picture.

From what I can google, there is quite a bit more formaldehyde in a banana then an entire schedule of vaccines. Check this out:

Furthermore, I think you should reconsider your stance on the flu vaccine, check out this excellent breakdown of flu vaccine efficacy:

I believe the risk still greatly outweighs the benefits.