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Vaccinations, mercury, and autism

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The god Mercury was said to be a messenger. Quicksilver, a fluid metal, shares its name with him. So what message do the media send about quicksilver?

Mercury (the element, not the god) is toxic. In humans, it affects the central nervous system. Certain forms of it are antiseptic and have been used in vaccines to prevent bacterial contamination. Ethyl mercury, also called thimerosal (in the U.S.) and thiomersal (in Europe), is the best known mercury-based vaccine preservative.

The pediatric vaccination schedule calls for a series of shots around 15-18 months. This is a time when children are starting to learn language rapidly, and are also developing socially, becoming more interactive with others. Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are often first noticed at this age, as well.

Many parents of children with ASD believe the vaccinations and the disorders are correlated. They have zeroed in on thimerosal as the culprit, since mercury affects the central nervous system. This controversial view has resulted in the removal of thimerosal from all vaccinations in the U.S. (with the exception of flu vaccines). It has also, in some cases, resulted in parents refusing to vaccinate their children against childhood diseases.

Studies have shown no link between thimerosal and autism. Most recently, ethyl mercury was shown to be excreted by infants' bodies in far less time than was previously thought. The researchers in this study concluded that the amount found in vaccines simply is not around long enough to do any nervous system damage.

Other research has shown that the rate of head growth in infants who later develop ASD differs from that of neurotypical* children. The growth was measured at ages before ASD becomes apparent, which suggests ASD may be present but (more or less) asymptomatic from infancy.

If this is the case, the 18-month series of vaccines can't be the culprit in ASD. In fact, the first appearance of ASD symptoms occurring around this series of shots must be coincidental. The medical establishment and the media should therefore reassure parents that vaccines are not only safe, but important to avoid childhood diseases, which can kill or permanently injure children.

ABC television apparently feels otherwise about its obligation. Today it debuts a new legal drama, Eli Stone, whose pilot episode involves a jury that finds that mercury caused autism in a child. According to one article, the creators say "not anti-vaccine and would be upset if parents chose not to immunize their children after seeing the show."

What other effect do they possibly believe their show could have? I wonder if ABC's parent, the Walt Disney Company, which is one of the greatest influences on modern culture (as much as I hate to say it), has forgotten the impact it has on society. Airing this program is not just irresponsible; it can do real damage to children's health. It's grossly negligent.


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Texas City follow-up

This post has been moved to my other blog, The Road to Black. To post a comment, visit the link.

This is in reference to the story I wrote about here, in which a Texas City police officer was involved in a fatal crash while off-duty.

"Leave the Lights On" means that in this space, I will always present information as accurately and unambiguously as I can. Deliberately or negligently presenting misinformation is dishonorable.

In that spirit, I am reporting that Captain Groetschius of the Texas City Police Department returned my phone call (after I additionally sent him an e-mail) clarifying what happened with Officer White after the crash.

Captain Groetschius said that due to injuries he sustained in the crash, Officer White never returned to duty, although he was not removed from the duty roster. He also stated that per department policy, their internal investigation won't begin until the criminal investigation is completed. He also mentioned that Officer White is a civil service employee.

My own conclusion, reading between the lines, is that the department found it unnecessary to place its officer on administrative leave until the charges were brought. Departments have to tread carefully in these situations because civil service employees have their own set of rights.

The bottom line is that according to the captain, his words were misrepresented by the Houston Chronicle. Funny that a stay-at-home mom with a phone and an e-mail account can find out more than they can.

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A Texas City officer and his DUI manslaughter

This post has been moved to my other blog, The Road to Black. To post a comment, visit the link.

Texas City is a largely industrial town southeast of Houston, best known for several severe industrial accidents. More recently, one of its police officers, John L. White, was charged with intoxication manslaughter in the death of a woman whose car he rear-ended while off duty. His blood alcohol level was 0.17, over twice the legal limit.

This is an isolated incident with an officer with no reported prior history. It does not necessarily reflect poorly on the Texas City Police Department as a whole. Right?


Here's what was reported yesterday:

"Texas City Police Capt. Brian Goetschius said White suffered a 'few bumps and bruises' and will remain on duty during the investigation." (my emphasis)

In most police departments, standard procedure places officers involved in any type of critical incident on administrative leave. There are myriad reasons for this, not the least of which is that to maintain public trust, it is imperative not to have on-duty officers who are suspected of criminal misdoing.

The Texas City Police Department's website lists one of its goals as "maintain(ing) high standards to ensure quality customer services is provided". Do their high standards include looking the other way when officers are suspected of DUI resulting in death?

I called the police department to make sure this was reported correctly. I was directed to the voice mail of a captain and am still waiting for a response. I will update here if and when I receive one.

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WFMW: Taming the wild litter box

This post has been moved to my other blog, The Road to Black. To post a comment, visit the link.

This is not a commercial and I have no stake in this product. But it really does work for me, so I feature it this Wednesday. If you have a cat, read on.

We have two cats. When our first child arrived, we no longer had room for the second litter box. And since we are lazy, we knew we would never change a single litter box often enough.

So we went to the big-box pet store and sprung for one of those gimmicky products that the pet-supply world is full of. This one lived up to the hype!

We've had our Litter Maid box for three years. When we brought it home and plugged it in, the cats thought it was the coolest thing ever and would run to watch every time it scooped the box. It requires no care from us except to dump the poop-tray once a week and refill the litter (and occasionally clean it like any litter box).

The cons are that the box itself is expensive (about $150 for the extra-large model we got) and so are the refill trays (almost a dollar each, and we go through one a week with two cats). You could dump them out and re-use them, but that would defeat the purpose of not having to mess around with dirty cat litter. You also have to buy good clumping litter (Tidy Cat Multi-Cat has always worked for us) which costs a little more, but that works out to be even because you waste less of it.

Now if only I could find self-changing diapers, I would be all set!

Works For Me Wednesday is hosted by Rocks In My Dryer.

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Fast food calories

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New York City is considering whether to require fast food restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus.

I visited some fast food websites. These numbers are from data published by the companies, based on a 2000 calorie diet:

At Taco Bell, a #2 Grilled Stuft Burrito (beef) and Nachos combo contains 1010 calories before you consider the calories in the large drink. That's just over half the calorie allowance of an average person. Want to eat "light" with a salad? A Fiesta Taco Salad by itself contains 840 calories, 42% of the calorie allowance.

McDonald's calls their link to nutrition information "Food, Nutrition and Fitness". Try staying fit when a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese combo (large fries, two ketchup packets, and a large Coke) contain 1650 calories, 83% of the daily calorie allowance. If you tone it down to a Caesar Salad with Crispy Chicken, dressing, and a large Coke, you cut it in half to a still-unimpressive 800 calories (40% of the daily allowance). To be fair, if you use grilled chicken instead, you cut it by 10% to 720 calories. Get rid of the coke and you now have a much more reasonable 410 calories (21% of the daily allowance).

Would having calorie information on the menu affect people's food choices? Would it affect your food choices? It would definitely affect mine. And that can only be a good thing; this misleading headline shows a correlation between fast food restaurants and obesity: if live near a lot of fast food joints, you're more likely to be obese than if you live near a lot of full-service restaurants.

I would like to see all fast food restaurants take this a step further and make all nutrition information readily available to customers in the store (not just on the website). McDonald's and Chick-Fil-A do a great job at this; Subway does not. After all, diabetics need to monitor carbohydrates, and those with heart disease especially need to watch saturated fat intake.

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Confessions of the Attentionally Deficit (or, Why My Home Exists in Disarray)

This post has been moved to my other blog, The Road to Black. To post a comment, visit the link.

I have been trying to get a handle on the clutter and visual commotion in my home. Well, I have been doing that for years, but here I am writing about my most recent efforts.

DAY 1: Dirty dishes have reached critical mass, so I clean the kitchen. Load and run the dishwasher. Scrub and sanitize the sink with Soft Scrub (using my trusty washable dish rag, of course). Make a token effort to get the crud off the flat-top stove. Fill the dish rack with clean pots and pans.

It's quite a feat to do all this without getting distracted, but alas it is not to be. The counter on the other side of the kitchen catches my eye. It's a clutter of unsorted mail, food wrappers, dirty drinking glasses, and odds and ends. Definitely a candidate for an Organization Project.

Step One: Sort everything into Keep and Toss piles. I need a box for each, so I go searching. In the laundry room I see the dirty "delicates" I meant to wash, so I load them in and put the washer on the "Gentle" cycle.

Satisfied, I walk back into the kitchen and see the counter. Oh yeah! I was in the middle of organizing it! I find a second box under the table (the first one was actually one the counter already amid the clutter) and get to work.

Quickly I see that the "Keep" pile will be bigger than the "Toss" pile. Optimistically, I had planned for the opposite. I switch box contents.

When I am done, the "Keep" box has a lot of papers that need to be assessed for importance. I rescue those, stack them up, and put them neatly on the counter, right next to the "Keep" box. I conscientiously recycle what I can out of the "Toss" box and bag up the rest. The box itself ends up on the kitchen table for want of another home.

I decide I have been very productive and save the sorting of the "Keep" box for later.

DAY 2: I hear the bird chirping plaintively and realize I forgot to feed him today. Going into his room, I decide it needs a cleaning. I start to lock the cat out of the room, but remember I need a broom and dustpan. I go to the laundry room to arm myself and go back to the bird room. Then I go back to the laundry room to get a trash bag, which I forgot. I change his paper, and and as I start to sweep up feathers and seeds from the floor, I gaze out the window and realize the mail has probably come. I vaguely think I'm expecting something important so I really want to check it, even though I can't remember exactly what it is I'm waiting for.

By extraordinary conscious effort I resist going to check the mail until I finish sweeping. The mail turns out to be all junk, which I put on the table (next to the empty box) because I cleared the counter yesterday, and I don't want to mix the circulars and credit card offers with the pile of important but still-unassessed papers I made yesterday.

I put the broom in the laundry room and suddenly remember the load of "delicates" that's still in the washer. A quick check reveals they haven't gone sour. I tromp upstairs to lay them out to dry. (What? Your laundry never goes sour while languishing in the washer? We know all about that phenomenon around here!) I walk right past the items accumulated on the bottom landing that need to be carried up, not even noticing them.

It goes on like this. But they haven't condemned the house yet!

Still to come: A picture is worth a thousand words!

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WFMW: Kitchen tips

This post has been moved to my other blog, The Road to Black. To post a comment, visit the link.

Works For Me Wednesday is a feature hosted at Rocks in my Dryer. Click the link to see what works for other bloggers.

Since this is my first WFMW, I am writing about something that works for me in one of the "top four" places where I spend my time at home: the kitchen.

The average kitchen sponge ranks right up with gelatin and agar agar as a bacterial growth medium. It has a high surface area, is perpetually damp, and is supplied with nutrients every time it's used to wipe a dirty dish. I try to keep the level of pathogenic bacteria in my kitchen to a dull roar, and sponges are absolutely verboten. Instead I use dish rags, which I change out at least daily. As a side benefit, I don't have to suffer hand-stink from a nasty sponge long past its prime. It's impossible to wash that smell off, kind of like formaldehyde.

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Pregnancy and symbiosis

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I have heard pregnancy described as being like a parasitic relationship: the embryo or fetus takes nutrients from the mother's body without giving anything in return. I am tired of hearing that; I don't think it's a fair description at all. I think the relationship is mutualistic, meaning each benefits the other.

First, some quick definitions. In biology, symbiosis describes any close relationship between two organisms. There are three basic types of symbiosis: mutualism, in which each organism benefits from the other; commensalism, in which one benefits and the other is neither helped nor harmed; and parasitism, in which one benefits and the other is harmed in some way.

When people refer to an embryo as a parasite, they usually mean that it benefits from its relationship with the mother, but the mother is harmed by having to sacrifice energy to maintaining it. For those of you who may be horrified to read that I have actually heard people say this, I want to quickly point out that there is always the implication that the mother is quite willing to make this sacrifice out of love. In fact, it is a rather crude and nerdy way of talking about a mother's love.

But I don't think parasitism is the best description of the relationship. Obviously the embryo benefits from the relationship, and I argue the mother does as well.

First, hormonal changes in pregnancy may protect against diseases of the reproductive system, including breast cancer. The science is still not completely clear on the subject.

Second, most mothers view their children positively. They would say they are benefitted by having children in many ways. They experience joy and learn patience.

Third, for those who prefer a clear and strictly scientific reason why a mother benefits, I will offer a Darwinian explanation. A mother benefits in the most profound way possible under Darwinian terms: by hosting her baby, she is able to pass on her genes. This is the Holy Grail of evolutionary success.

Some of you, especially mothers, may not understand how I can write about motherhood this way. Rest assured, I don't actually view motherhood as just an ecologically curious relationship between two organisms. I am writing here in a detached way as part of a thought experiment, nothing more.

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Family planning

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Last month I was blessed to give birth to my son. While filling out some of the scads of hospital paperwork, I ran across this question:

Was this pregnancy planned?

I was at a loss over how to answer. How do you plan to receive a gift?

My attitude on family planning -- wait. "Attitude" is the wrong word. This is something much more inherent. "Perspective" is a better word, with the understanding that it's the perspective from a place I am firmly anchored with a deep taproot. So I'll start over.

My perspective on family planning -- wait again. "Planning" is the wrong word. Let's say "building". I'll start over once more.

My perspective on family building is that the building blocks come from God. He is the Architect, and we construction workers -- my husband and I -- can only build the building he means us to build if we follow his blueprint. That means trusting him.

For the first seven years of our marriage, there were no pregnancies, though we were not doing anything to prevent them. Out of this came our first son, whom we adopted. I think the reason God gave us no pregnancies was just so Big Brother could join our family.

And then I did get pregnant and gave birth to our second son. I had accepted infertility, so I was confused but thrilled.

Was Little Brother planned? To me, that's like asking if I planned for the sun to shine today.

He wasn't planned in that we weren't actively trying for pregnancy. That is, we were not watching the ovulation clock. He wasn't not planned in that we were not attempting to frustrate God from giving him to us. That is, we were not using any contraception.

Confused by the question on the hospital form, I wrote "sure". I should have written "not applicable".

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Health care: It's death or taxes


I came across an interesting bit of commentary from Forbes.com, discussing the history of health care in America. Written by one Yaron Brook, it contains both untruths and opinions I ardently disagree with.

First, the obvious lie:

Prior to the government's entrance into the medical field, health care was regarded as a product to be traded voluntarily on a free market--no different from food, clothing, or any other important good or service.... Had this freedom been allowed to endure, Americans' rising productivity would have allowed them to buy better and better health care, just as, today, we buy better and more varied food and clothing than people did a century ago. There would be no crisis of affordability, as there isn't for food or clothing.

This is not true. Prior to the government's entrance into healthcare, the quality of care was drastically lower than it is today. There was no such thing as an MRI machine in 1955. Advances in medical technology have not been cheap. We also have much more powerful and effective, and more expensive, drugs available today. The increased quality of health care has been a major factor, probably the major factor, in its increased cost.

Next, the elitist opinion:

In a system in which someone else is footing the bill, consumers, encouraged to regard health care as a "right," demand medical services without having to consider their real price.

In context, it's clear Mr. Brook believes health care is not a right, but rather should be paid for by individuals (either directly or by purchasing insurance) according to their means. From this opinion, I can infer Mr. Brook is neither sick nor poor.

Taken to its logical conclusion, Mr. Brook is arguing that when the poor get sick, they should be left to die for lack of care they can't afford. If a surgical treatment or prescription drug could save a person's life, and the person was indigent, Mr. Brook believes society should let that person die.

I pray that Mr. Brook's vision never becomes reality, and if it does, I pray for his sake that he never experiences poverty and illness, or his heirs will have to worry about the cost of a funeral.

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In science fiction, it's called the "life force" or just "energy". In Eastern traditions, it's called prana or qi. Some might associate it with the soul or spirit. And many educated people believe it exists in some form as a unique force underlying all life.

Corrollaries are that sickness results in, or from, disruption of the vital force, and that death occurs when it is lost.

I don't believe in vitalism. I have a mechanistic view of life, which means that I see living things as enormously complex machines. That does not mean I don't believe in a spiritual realm, only that I believe there is no scientific basis to support the concept of a "vitalistic force". Every description of it I have read or heard is metaphysical in nature, and therefore not scientific.

I was surprised to see this headline: "M.D. Anderson scientist finds life's essence". Was a vital force discovered right in my backyard when I wasn't looking?

It turns out that to a newspaper science writer, "life's essence" refers to the mechanism of cell division, not to "life force". So the vitalists are back to square one.

Or are they? When I first heard of "biophotons", I thought they were just another pseudoscientific quack theory invented to sell a new line of products. It turns out they are real, having been described in, for example, the journals Modern Physics Letters B and Cell Biophysics long ago. The details are well over my head, but they seem to be involved in cell communication. It looks mechanistic to me.

But not all researchers agree it's mechanistic. Apparently, according to this book, there are two conceptions of biophotons: a mechanistic one and a vitalistic one. The vitalistic one is proposed by real scientists.

It has to do with quantum mechanics (or something called "modern quantum optics"). That's it: invincibly over my head. I'm out of the commentariat on the subject due to inability to understand it anymore.

All I can say is, maybe it will turn out there is something to the idea of a vital force after all.

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About this blog


Leave the lights on is a reporting, commentary, and opinion blog on the topics of science and Catholic faith. Its purpose is to help shed light on these topics through exposition and discussion — that is, by talking about them. Recurring themes include:

  • The interface between science and faith
  • Ethics from a Catholic perspective
  • Evolution theory
  • Renewable biofuels
  • Health care in the United States
  • Clinical psychology and mental health
  • Catholic life and teaching
Leave the lights on is sponsored by Ignatius Press. Visit Ignatius Press for the best in Catholic Reading!

Comments policy

Currently, there has been very little difficulty with abusive comments on this blog. Therefore, the comments policy is left relatively unrestrictive. This is a "do-follow" blog, and bloggers are encouraged to leave a link with their quality comment. This blog takes a "do-not-feed-the-trolls" approach to abusive comments; they will not be deleted unless they become disruptive. Comments judged to be spam, in my sole personal discretion, will be deleted. This policy is subject to change without notice at any time.

About the author

Leave the lights on is written by an American mother, Catholic, science nerd, and Wikipedian with the screen name Ginkgo100. She has a B.S. in Zoology and is a lay catechist at her parish, and she has been writing since she learned what letters are.