Thimerosal is a solution of alcohol and ethyl mercury previously used as a preservative in some medicines, including some infant vaccines. It is possible, though not established, that its use in vaccines, combined with the increasing number of vaccinations infants receive, was the reason, or a reason, for the surge in autism cases during the 1990s. Apparently a simple calculation would have suggested that the mercury load in the combination of recommended vaccines was above the established safe level, but no one did the calculation, including Eli Lilly, which makes thimerosal. See this astonishingly restrained account of the matter by Dwight Meredith, one of whose sons is profoundly autistic.
Of course it’s obvious what the Congress ought to do about this. Well, not obvious to me, but then I’m not as smart as Dick Armey. Armey figured it out right away: sneak a provision into the Homeland Security bill at the last minute to protect Lilly from lawsuits. This is the kind of overplaying an admittedly strong hand that will, I hope, eventually bring the Republicans down.
Dan Simon points out that there’s not much scientific evidence linking thimerosal to autism, citing a report from CDC. A reader who is himself the father of an autistic child makes the same point, and links to a Scientific American article. Dwight Meredith’s original post acknowledged the uncertainties involved, and pointed out that the elimination of thimerosal creates a natural experiment; if autism rates don’t go down now, we can be pretty sure that thimerosal wasn’t a significant cause. What I object to is the notion that the right fix for the problems with the tort system is special-interest riders on unrelated bills.