You may research the ingredients of your child’s cereal, so why not learn about what’s inside your child’s vaccines? By breaking down vaccines’ “big ticket” ingredients—formaldehyde, aluminum, and mercury—hosts Dr. Alok Patel and Bethany Van Delft explore the recognizable chemicals in vaccines, explain their uses, and quell our worries about these ingredients’ safety.
Obviously, picturing a preserved sheep’s brain floating in formaldehyde isn’t the most comforting image. The chemical formaldehyde is a well-known preservative that is, in fact, the product of DNA metabolism. And it’s present in our cells all the time! Only a small amount of formaldehyde is used in vaccines to keep them sterile, and babies naturally have 50 to 70 times the amount of formaldehyde in a vaccine dosage constantly circulating in their bodies as a byproduct of DNA metabolism.
Aluminum: it’s what you wrap your leftovers in, but do you want it inside your body? Although the buzz phrase “aluminum toxicity” has some truth to it, many substances—like sodium and potassium—can be toxic in large doses, and aluminum toxicity only occurs in people who wind up with a high level of aluminum in their body and can’t properly flush it out. Certain people are at a higher risk for aluminum toxicity; those who are on dialysis, get intravenous nutrition, or are continuously exposed to aluminum in their environment are among them. Small amounts of aluminum have been used in vaccines for more than 50 years to help them be as effective as possible. The amount used in vaccines is minuscule enough that your and your child’s kidneys can expel it: kids take in more aluminum from breast milk, food, and everyday life (because Earth’s crust has aluminum in it, too!) than they do by getting a shot at the doctor’s office.
Like aluminum, mercury can also cause toxicity (just think: when the planet Mercury goes into retrograde, doesn’t the world around you get SO toxic?). In vaccines, the element mercury has historically been used to make the preservative thimerosal. Thimerosal is made specifically from ethyl mercury, which is also actively secreted by the human gut and leaves the body when we poop. Ethyl mercury is different than methyl mercury—formed when bacteria react with naturally-occurring mercury in water, soil, and plants—the compound most people think of when they hear the word “mercury.” Methyl mercury enters the food chain when fish and other organisms consume prey that already contains it, and at high levels, it can be toxic to people. It’s different from the much safer ethyl mercury that has been used in vaccines. But to top it all off, thimerosal is not commonly used in vaccines today.
While it’s possible for people to develop a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine, it’s also extremely rare: about 1.4 in every 1 million doses administered result in a severe reaction. And although some vaccines contain proteins from chicken eggs, there’s nothing to worry about if your child has a mild to moderate egg allergy: it’s still safe to get a vaccine with egg proteins so long as it’s done under a medical provider’s supervision. More common symptoms include pain, redness, and swelling at the injection site. These symptoms are typically mild and resolve within one to three days.
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