Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Undead Bad Science

One nasty thing about peudoscience - it doesn't die quietly.

The dreadfully inept "study" of mercury in the hair of autistic children - saved as momentos of their first haircut - by Holmes, Blaxill and Haley (2003) continues to spread misinformation and confusion. A quick check on "Web of Science" revealed that it had been cited in other papers fifteen times! Of course, it should come as no surprise that at least six of those citations were in articles by the dynamic duo of pseudoscience, Geier and Geier (see here and here, also here, here, here and here).

In a nutshell, the Holmes et al "study" compared the mercury in the "first baby haircut" hair of 94 autistic children and 45 "neurotypical" controls. Disregarding so many procedural, technical and analytical flaws that they almost defy counting, the "data" they came up were these:

Autistic children's hair mercury levels: 0.47 ppm (+/- 0.28 ppm)
Control children's hair mercury levels: 3.63 ppm (+/- 3.65 ppm)

Now, Holmes (a radiation oncologist who was in "alternative" medical practice at the time), Blaxill (an MBA) and Haley (a somewhat conflicted PhD chemist) concluded that, since the autstic children had lower hair mercury than the controls, that autistic children were unable to excrete mercury.


Mind you, they offered no data to support that startling (if not ridiculous) conclusion, nor does anything known about mercury "excretion" in hair support that line of "reasoning". As far as I can tell, they just made it up rather than face what the data (such as it was) told them - that mercury had nothing to do with autism (actually, the data suggest that mercury might protect children from autism - another unlikely possibility).

Now, come along with me for a minute as we take a look at another study of hair mercury. This study, published in 2004, was part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of 1999-2000 and looked at the hair mercury levels of 838 "normal" children ages 1 - 5. This is roughly the same age range of the hair samples Holmes et al examined. The NHANES results, however, were different:

Children's hair mercury levels: 0.22 ppm (+/- 0.04 ppm)

This puts the Holmes et al conclusions in a different light, doesn't it? The autistic children in the Holmes et al study had over twice the mean hair mercury level of the NHANES group (of 838 children) and the Holmes et al controls had hair mercury levels of over sixteen times the NHANES level.

What are they feeding those kids?

Well, the only conclusion that you can draw from that data is that the Holmes et al study is garbage. My suspicion is that their laboratory - Doctor's Data - is the cause of the outrageously high levels of mercury found in the children - especially the control children.

So, I hope that this stake through the heart will help this abysmal study finally rest in the obscurity that it so richly deserves.

I doubt it, though - the undead always rise again.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about the pseudoscience of injecting 75 micrograms of mercury into an infant in one day while the CDC tells us that only one microgram is safe?

08 March, 2006 05:55  
Blogger Bronze Dog said...


Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall...

08 March, 2006 06:17  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Control children's hair mercury levels: 3.63 ppm (+/- 3.65 ppm)"

Are those numbers correct? Now, I'm no scientist, so I could be misinterpreting, but that level of accuracy suggests to me that it is possible the average level of mercury in the hair of the control group might have been anywhere between 7.28ppm and -0.02ppm. I see three possibilities:
1) The numbers are a typo.
2) The study was so poorly conducted so as to make the results completely useless.
3) I don't understand the notation.
Could you elucidate?

08 March, 2006 06:26  
Blogger Do'C said...

Hi Paul,

Math is not a strong suit for the Mercury=Autism proponents. Here's an example.

08 March, 2006 06:58  
Blogger Do'C said...

Sorry, bad link.
Here's the URL

08 March, 2006 06:59  
Blogger Big Lebowski Store said...

Well done, Prometheus.


08 March, 2006 07:02  
Blogger Big Lebowski Store said...

See link to this post at Flea.



08 March, 2006 07:58  
Blogger Prometheus said...


That's how the numbers were reported. If you dig a bit, you'll find that they used MS Excel as their "statistics program" and they are reporting the mean +/- the standard deviation.

One of the myriad errors in the paper was the fact that they used parametric statistical analyses - which assume a symmetrical, normal (i.e. "bell shaped") distribution - and their actual distribution is quite obviously skewed. They should have used non-parametric statistics.

That said, however, the larger error was apparently done at their analytical laboratory, which showed grossly elevated hair mercury levels in their "normal" controls when compared to a much larger - and better controlled - study.

The bottom line - it was a poorly done study that resulted in unusable and useless data. Their "analysis" of the data was also questionable at best.

Fore Sam,

Show me the data supporting your assertion that mercury causes autism. As I said before, I'm willing and eager to believe you, but you're not giving me anything to work with.


08 March, 2006 09:00  
Blogger John Best said...

Asking me questions isn't answering my statement that 75 micrograms versus one microgram is bad science. Then we have 4 times as many boys with autism as girls and show how testosterone makes mercury more dangerous while estrogen renders it less potent. You can't find those two facts to be anything but coincidence?

08 March, 2006 10:15  
Blogger notmercury said...

Fore Sam, Do the Math

08 March, 2006 12:41  
Blogger Prometheus said...

Fore Sam,

Show me the data that shows that testosterone makes mercury more toxic and estrogen makes it less toxic. Then you can go back to showing me the data that shows that mercury causes autism.

Note: your assertions do not equal data. Also, just saying that it could be so or might be so doesn't make it so. As I've said before, I can sit at my desk and think up six things that might cause autism before I finish my tea.

It's finding the data to support those "Just So" stories that is the hard part.


08 March, 2006 14:05  
Blogger Big Lebowski Store said...


re: the dispute with Fore Sam, the troll:

I'm Jewish, so I shouldn't know this, but didn't Jesus warn against casting pearls before swine?



08 March, 2006 14:19  
Blogger Prometheus said...


You know, if Fore Sam didn't exist, I'd probably want to make him up. He's the perfect foil for my arguments - he persistently doesn't answer requests for data to back up his assertions and tries to change the subject when I press him too hard.

I'm not trying to convince him - I can't reason someone out of an opinion they didn't reason themselves into. And it's not really his opinion in the first place - it was just something he heard from someone and he doesn't understand it well enough to know that it's bogus.

No, the people I'm trying to reach are those who are still open to information (i.e. not Fore Sam). Those people will see the "debate" and hopefully see which side has reason and data ("my" side) and which is all bluff and bluster.


08 March, 2006 15:12  
Blogger Bronze Dog said...

Fore Sam, try asking your question again, except try using ONE definition of "mercury". Until you do, it's just gibberish.

That's glory for you.

08 March, 2006 15:13  
Blogger clone3g said...

Fore Sam said: Then we have 4 times as many boys with autism as girls and show how testosterone makes mercury more dangerous while estrogen renders it less potent.

Just because the Geier Vultures told you so doesn't make it a fact John. In fact this study suggests the opposite effect.
Effect of sex hormones on the fate of methylmercury and on glutathione metabolism in mice

Kimiko Hlrayamaa, , Akira Yasutakea and Masayasu Inoueb

15 November 2002.

To investigate the mechanisms for the sex-related difference in the in vivo fate of methyl-mercury (MeHg), the effects of hormonal manipulation on the distribution and urinary excretion of the mercurial moiety (Hg) of injected MeHg and on hepato-renal metabolism of glutathione were studied in C57BL/6N mice. Twenty-four hours after oral administration of MeHg, urinary Hg levels were significantly higher in males than in females. Tissue Hg levels of males were higher in the kidney, but lower in the brain, liver and plasma than those of females. The fate of injected MeHg in castrated males was similar to that in normal females except for its brain levels. This feminization of the mercurial behavior in the castrated males was restored by treating with testosterone propionate (TP). When control mice were treated with TP, urinary excretion of Hg increased in both sexes, whereas renal Hg level increased only in females. Administration of estradiol benzoate (EB) to males decreased the renal accumulation and urinary excretion of Hg, whereas its hepatic levels increased. However, no significant change in the fate of MeHg was found in females pretreated with EB. Castration of females slightly decreased the urinary excretion of Hg. Thus, tissue distribution and urinary excretion of the administered MeHg seem to be subject to sex hormone control. Since MeHg has a high affinity for GSH, effects of hormonal manipulation on the metabolism of hepato-renal glutathione were also investigated. A significant sex-related difference in glutathione levels was found in plasma but not in the kidney, liver and erythrocytes. The half-lives of glutathione in the liver and kidney were significantly shorter in males than in females as determined by treatment with buthionine sulfoximine, a specific inhibitor of GSH synthesis. This difference was also modulated by the hormonal treatment. Since half-lives of GSH in the liver and kidney predominantly reflect the rate of its efflux from these tissues, the results suggest that GSH metabolism and/or secretory transport may be regulated by sex hormones. These and other observations suggest that the fate of MeHg may be modulated by way of regulating the inter-organ metabolism and transport of glutathione and its derivatives.

09 March, 2006 05:38  
Blogger John Best said...

So they got more mercury out by adding testosterone which shows that the testosterone binds with the mercury. This doesn't show whether testosterone makes the mercury more potent or not, only that more was excreted. This doesn't account for mice that may have an inability to excrete mercury and no mention is made of a blood brain barrier. This doesn't address the question of the damage that the mercury can do. It does nothing to refute Haley's work.

09 March, 2006 08:29  
Blogger clone3g said...

Once again you've been driving your golf cart on the moebius superhighway of contradictions.

So they got more mercury out by adding testosterone which shows that the testosterone binds with the mercury.

Which would indicate that males are better excretors due to higher levels of testosterone but the testosterone makes the mercury more potent but they have less in their brains which must mean that more is binding with mercury and then the mercury is leaving the body with the testosterone so they have to make more but the males can do that because they are males so they have more testos...er...one....and more...no less!!.. merrcu...no more...but....AHHHHHHRGHH!!! BOOM!
Was that the sound of your brain exploding?

09 March, 2006 09:42  
Blogger Prometheus said...

Fore Sam,

Just out of curiosity, can you imagine a set of circumstances - some astounding set of data, perhaps - that could possibly convince you that you are wrong about autism being caused by mercury?

I'm not asking you to admit that you might be wrong - that's obviously too much to ask - but just to imagine something that might cause you to change your mind.

Clearly, the overwhelming amount of data that contradicts your chosen position isn't enough, but might not there be something that could convince you that there isn't a connection between mercury and autism?

I'm asking this because you seemed to turn everything that Clone3G said upside down. Let me run through it again for you:

[1] Male rats were better able to excrete mercury and had lower brain and liver mercury levels than females (exactly the opposite of what Geier and Geier claim, by the way).

[2] Castrating (that means removing the testicles or "balls" of the male rats) the males led to lower excretion but - curiously - not higher brain levels of mercury.

[3] Giving testosterone to castrated male rats restored their higher mercury excretion (too bad they didn't give testosterone to some of the females - it would have been interesting to see what their response would have been).

In contrast (such a contrast it is, too - real data vs a "Just So" story), Geier and Geier propose that:

[1] Male humans have poorer mercury excretion and higher brain mercury levels.

[2] Castrating (with Lupron) male humans will increase their ability to excrete mercury.

Let's see.... G&G make up a "Just So" story about testosterone, mercury and autism that directly conflicts with experimental data. Who should we believe?

Or are you going to argue that this study was done at a University where some of the researchers are paid by "Big Pharma"? Or will you just ignore it, like you've ignored every other part of the mountain of data refuting a connection between autism and mercury.


09 March, 2006 10:30  
Blogger Bronze Dog said...

Welcome to Moonside, clone. ;)

09 March, 2006 10:51  
Blogger John Best said...

I thought we were talking about mice.
I knew that castration equals gelding.
Just because the mice excreted more mercury doesn't mean the mercury wasn't harming their brains. That possibility isn't mentioned.
Sure, you can convince me mercury has nothing to do with autism but you'll have a tough time finding subjects. Start shooting mercury into those Amish babies and make sure they get some of it before they can develop a BBB as in HepB on day of birth.
If the Geier's were using lupron on ten year olds, they weren't castrating them since the kids hadn't reached puberty and had plenty of time to make more testosterone. And, they did show that more mercury was cominmg out along with the testosterone. It didn't increase their ability to excrete mercury. It showed that the testosterone dragged out mercury with it. I won't argue whether there were "sheets" or not. That isn't what I read in their first discussion of the subject. All it said was that more merciury was cominmg out and there were none of the usual side effects that can accompany chelation.

09 March, 2006 10:59  
Blogger Autism Diva said...

Autism Diva has graphs and everything. Well, not video, like the great Bartholomew Cubbins, but she does have graphs.


09 March, 2006 11:32  
Blogger clone3g said...

Fore Sam said: Sure, you can convince me mercury has nothing to do with autism but you'll have a tough time finding subjects. Start shooting mercury into those Amish babies and make sure they get some of it before they can develop a BBB as in HepB on day of birth.

I think what you are suggesting here is if we expose a population with a very low rate of vaccine uptake to thimerosal then many of them should develop autism, do I have that right?

Since you became convinced when your child started to show signs of autism right around the time when vaccines are routinely administered, then why should we need an entire population for the study? Since the majority of children who have received thimerosal containing vaccines are not autistic, wouldn't it make more sense to look for unvaccinated autistics? Unless you are willing to admit that it is possible to be autistic without thimerosal exposure.

09 March, 2006 12:09  
Blogger John Best said...

They may have become autistic through other environmental factors including their mother's breast milk or rhogam shots or amalgams. I think you'd be more certain of the results with a group who shows no autism to see if thimerosal would cause it. Maybe you could do it with monkeys if you deem the correlation valid.

09 March, 2006 13:44  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fore Sam,

Why would anyone have to use Lupron if chelation works so well already?

I'm pretty sure the answer is, "hmmm, he's not cured yet so let's throw another thing at 'em".

Is your child getting/going to get Lupron? What happens if lupron doesn't work for him?

Since you've already passed Andy Cutler's window of opportunity and since you decided not to test for mercury prior to your biomedical journey, why not stop chelation, forego the lupron and see what happens over 6 months?

09 March, 2006 13:57  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Maybe you could do it with monkeys"

it's all about sex, schnutz, and manliness with you freaks.

/quote clipping fun

09 March, 2006 14:00  
Blogger clone3g said...

Fore Sam said: They may have become autistic through other environmental factors including their mother's breast milk or rhogam shots or amalgams

Breast milk causes autism now?

So you think autism first appeared around the time thimerosal was invented, any autism before then was due to Fragile X, but some autism may be caused by environmental sources of mercury, but all autism is caused by mercury.

What about the Rhogam thing? Would mothers requiring Rhogam have more autistic babies?

09 March, 2006 14:22  
Blogger Bronze Dog said...

IIRC, milk is supposed to be one of the primary sources of mercury (Hg2+) out there.

Of course, with thimerosal, we're not dealing with Hg2+. At least not in any way I know of.

09 March, 2006 14:39  
Blogger John Best said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

09 March, 2006 15:17  
Blogger John Best said...

Why all the questions? I thought you knew everything there was to know about autism. Could there really be some aspect about mercury as a cause of autism that you haven't been trained to refute?

09 March, 2006 15:21  
Blogger clone3g said...

I have lots of questions, it's true, but I haven't been trained to refute any aspects of mercury as a cause. There isn't anything to refute.

Why so few answers from you? I thought you knew everything there was to know about mercury poisoning? Don't you want to tell us about Rhogam and all of the kids that were made autistic by it? Come to think of it, wouldn't that be a prenatal cause?

09 March, 2006 16:08  
Blogger Bronze Dog said...

Nice loaded language, Fore Sam. Have you ever considered that that "training" involves pointing out advocate sloppiness and/or lies? It's also a way of manufacturing guilt by association if your opponent happens to see through your poor arguments.

A valid argument is a valid argument. If you think clone's arguments are invalid, show us the holes in his logic.

If your arguments are valid, you should have no fear about answering questions or requests for clarification.

09 March, 2006 16:20  
Blogger John Best said...

Yes Clone, it would be a pre natal cause much like eating too much mercury laden fish like the govt. warns us about. It's odd that the govt. warns us about fish but not about rhogam shots, don't you think?

09 March, 2006 16:27  
Blogger John Best said...

Yes Bronze Dog, I see you are well trained in pointing out errors in statistical analysis when the writer is named Geier but can't find the errors when the writer is named Verstrtaeten.
It's no fear of answering questions. It's amazement that I could say anything on this blog that isn't instantly refuted.

09 March, 2006 16:33  
Blogger Bronze Dog said...

More humpty-dumptying. Pick ONE definition of "mercury" and stick with it, Fore Sam.

09 March, 2006 16:34  
Blogger Bronze Dog said...

So, how did you control against natural improvement in your "Ace of Trumps" anecdote?

09 March, 2006 16:35  
Blogger clone3g said...

Fore Sam said...
Yes Clone, it would be a pre natal cause much like eating too much mercury laden fish like the govt. warns us about.

Are you suddenly channeling Sue M.? She's still alive isn't she?

Yeah, yeah, the government has failed you, get out and vote next time, but back to the Rhogam, wouldn't we expect to see more autism in children born to mothers who received Rhogam?

So if maternal exposure to mercury causes autism does that mean it's not the vaccines after all?

09 March, 2006 16:45  
Blogger notmercury said...

I agree About SBC and the Fetal testosterone work Ruth. It's important work even if I don't agree with the rest of the Extreme Male theory.

In case anyone is interested, there was a study to investigate the incidence of autism and maternal Rhogam use and it was no higher than the general population.

10 March, 2006 11:13  
Blogger John Best said...

What a bogus study. Holmes looked at baby hair. This sham study looked at current hair for 5 year olds who probably hadn't had a vaccination in 3 years.

12 March, 2006 04:51  
Blogger Prometheus said...

Fore Sam,

If you had bothered to look at the group heading, you would have seen that they sampled hair from the heads of children from 1 - 5 years old, not just 5-year-olds. The hair that Holmes et al was testing had come from the heads of children when they were 1 - 2 years old. The ranges overlap.

Even if you assume that the children in the NHANES study hadn't gotten a vaccine since their 18 month vaccines, this still doesn't explain away the lower total range in the study. The 95th percentile ends at a level of 0.76 ppm, 'way below the Holmes et al mean level for "normal" controls of 3.63 ppm. If kids 18 months and younger had hair mercury levels as high as those reported by Holmes et al, we would see them before reaching the 95th percentile.

And just for the sake of completeness, humans "excrete" very little mercury in their hair. The biggest reason for that is that humans (especially pre-pubescent humans) don't have much hair.

Finally, mercury is not "excreted" in hair, it simply attaches itself to the sulfur-containing cysteine molecules in the forming hair strand. The mercury gets to the hair follicles (and thence into the hair) in the bloodstream. So, if the mercury could have gotten to the brain, it had to have been available to the growing hair strand.

The flaws, errors and outright fabrications in the Holmes et al study go on and on. I've just hit the worst of them.


12 March, 2006 08:13  
Blogger John Best said...

The kids in this study were vaccinated after they started taking thimerosal out of vaccines. It just proves the stupidity of the scientists. BTW, my pre-pubescent kids have a lot more hair than I do.
The Holmes study is just something you naysayers can't refute. Why don't you stop trying and admit the truth?

12 March, 2006 09:06  
Blogger Bronze Dog said...

Why don't you bother trying to understand and address the refutations, Fore Sam?

12 March, 2006 13:37  
Blogger Prometheus said...

Fore Sam,

Once again, you display your ignorance right out where people can see it. Go to the site where the study is posted (it's free!) and read the top line. The data is from the 1999-2000 NHANES survey. That's when the samples were taken.

Now, weren't you one of the people arguing that mercury wasn't removed from children's vaccines until 2002?

And your point was...?

As to hair being a significant route of mercury "excretion" - do you or your pre-pubescent children have as much hair (on a pound per pound basis) as a mouse? Mice were found to have 40% of the administered mercury dose come out in the hair. Of course, nude (hairless) mice manage to excrete mercury pretty much as fast as their hairy brethren, so it doesn't appear to be a critical route, even in mice.

So, are you a man or a mouse?


12 March, 2006 16:38  
Blogger María Luján said...

Hi Prometheus
I agree with you that Holmes et al paper is I would say out of date and incorrectly analyzed manuscript, considering the further evidence published on hair Hg levels, for the general population and for poisoned people. Would you interested on some analysis of published evidence of use of hair to detect OTHER HM (Pb, Cd, As ) and Al, Se and Zn status and the published evidence?
Please let me know
María Luján

15 March, 2006 06:44  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...In case anyone is interested, there was a study to investigate the incidence of autism and maternal Rhogam use and it was no higher than the general population...

Well I sure am. Where can I find this study? I REALLY want to see it. But it is so difficult to know what to believe anymore...even *with* studies. Think of all the docs pushing phen-fen. My doc wanted me to use it as I sat there in her office reading a Good Housekeeping article that said it could kill you. She said that drugs would not be released for use in the US if they were dangerous. Several months later the drug combo was pulled. :(

07 May, 2006 16:27  

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