Topeka Legislation that a Lawrence mother says will protect children and parents from the kind of mercury poisoning that happened to her son is sitting idle in a Senate committee.
Senate Bill 537 would lead to a state ban of vaccines that contain thimerosal, a compound that is made up of 50 percent mercury, which is a known toxin that affects the nervous system.
Thimerosal is a preservative used to ward off bacterial and fungal contamination in some vaccines and other health care products, and it is the focus of a raging debate.
Federal and state officials say it is safe, but thousands of parents have blamed thimerosal for their children's disorders and the recent increase in the number of autistic children.
Linda Weinmaster said her son Adam, now 14, was poisoned by thimerosal from shots she received during her pregnancy and vaccines Adam received later as an infant. He has a number of impairments because of the adverse effects of thimerosal, she said.
"These damaged children are not only costing the taxpayers millions in special education services, but many will not be able to hold jobs and will have to be taken care of for the rest of their lives, putting even more of a burden on parents and society," she said.
Like many parents nationwide, Weinmaster said government studies that fail to show links between thimerosal and autism are flawed and biased by ties to the pharmaceutical industry. The controversy over thimerosal has been fought in capitals around the world. Several countries, including Denmark, have banned the use of thimerosal.
No action taken
Weinmaster said SB 537, similar to legislation filed in nearly 30 states, would save Kansas millions in tax dollars from avoided health care costs in the future.
A public hearing on the bill occurred in March, but the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee has taken no action on the measure.
Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, who is a physician, said there had never been a proven link between thimerosal and autism, a position that's also supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.
High levels of mercury are known to cause neurological disorders. A recent University of California-Davis study found thimerosal can disrupt the immune system in mice. The study's authors cautioned that the findings did not link use of thimerosal with autism, but many autistic children experience immune problems.
Barnett said parts of the bill also would ban the use of some travel vaccinations containing thimerosal. And he said the process to override the proposed ban on thimerosal in the event of a public health emergency, such as a flu pandemic, would be cumbersome.
"The bill did not have support to come out of committee, particularly the second part, which would have prohibited the availability of any medicine in the state of Kansas in 2008 of containing thimerosal," Barnett said.
Health officials' concerns
The bill would prohibit the use of any vaccine containing more than 0.5 micrograms of mercury per 0.5 milliliter dose for any child 8 years old or younger or any pregnant woman, starting Jan. 1, 2007. Under the bill, the state would have prohibited the use of any level of mercury in any vaccine by Jan. 1, 2008.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment had concerns about the bill.
Currently, most childhood vaccines in the United States contain little or no thimerosal, doctors say. But most flu shots do.
Only about 10 percent of the 80 million doses of injectable flu vaccine produced this year were thimerosal-free, according to Dr. Howard Rodenberg, director of the division of health for KDHE.
"The limited amount of thimerosal-free vaccine would likely mean that not all those who need to be vaccinated could be vaccinated," Rodenberg said.
He also noted the ban starting in 2008 could prevent Kansans from getting travel vaccinations, such as those against encephalitis. Rodenberg said it also could affect the availability of snake and spider antivenins, which contain mercury preservatives, as well as products for the eyes, ears and nose.
The bill could "call into question the integrity of the vaccine supply," Rodenberg said, and drive down the rate of childhood immunizations in Kansas, which already are among the nation's lowest.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also opposes the bill even though the academy has called for the phaseout of thimerosal in childhood vaccines.
Dr. Dennis Cooley of Topeka, of the academy's Kansas chapter, said pediatricians opposed thimerosal as a precaution. But he said banning a government-approved substance would create a dangerous precedent.
"Certain people feel antidepressants are dangerous and shouldn't be used," he said.
Question of money
But Weinmaster said the bottom line is about money. Thimerosal-free vaccines cost from 25 percent to 30 percent more because they must be kept in single-use vials. With single-use vials, the product must be used immediately once the seal is broken. In multidose vials, thimerosal is used to prevent contamination once the seal is broken.
While scientists debate whether thimerosal is specifically the culprit for the increase in autism, she said, there is no debate that high mercury levels cause neurological disorders.
Weinmaster said she and a group of families, including others from Lawrence, intended to keep fighting for the legislation.
"The bottle of thimerosal has a skull and crossbones on it because it's poison, and it's wrong to poison American children," she said.