Page by Stephanie Watkins

Before antibiotics, many mercury compounds were incorporated into medicines designed to combat bacteria. Originally utilized as an antiseptic in the early 20th century, a new class of mercury was used both in operating rooms and over-the-counter stores. Thimerosal was one of the most popular early drugs, approximately 50% mercury, found to be almost twice as effective as other medicines fighting bacteria. With epidemics on the rise, the need for effective vaccines was evident and thimerosal not only destroyed bacteria, but could do so in the form of a low concentration. Keep in mind that the US Food and Drug Administration did not demand safety testing of drugs until 1938 and efficacy testing until the 1960s (Baker, 2008).

In the 1970s, thimerosal began to be questioned as the idea of organic mercury poisoning surfaced, but a review by the FDA concluded that the level of mercury in vaccines was not high enough to be dangerous. Then, in the 1990s, studies of methylmercury found that even minimal exposures to organic mercury  could be dangerous to a developing infant. This dangerous type of mercury was sometimes found in water and fish supply, often killing seagulls, fish, and even cats. In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement proclaiming that “thimerosal containing vaccines should be removed as soon as possible” (Baker, 2008, p. 250). A group of parents of children with autism (“Mercury Moms”) applied this finding to the etiology of autism itself, organizing themselves and researching to the extent that studies began to reflect their theory (Baker, 2008).

Various studies have demonstrated that there is no such effect of mercury on the etiology of autism, but this stigma continues to exist in modern society. In a study examining hair samples of individuals with autism and their siblings, no significant differences were found between mercury levels for the two groups (Williams, Hersh, Allard, & Sears, 2008).


Baker, J. P. (2008). Mercury, vaccines, and autism: One controversy, three histories. American Journal of Public Health98(2), 244-253.

Williams, P. G., Hersh, J. H., Allard, A., Sears, L. L. (2008). A controlled study of mercury levels in hair samples of children with autism as compared to their typically developing siblings. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 2, 170-175.


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