Autism activism: Parent at war with mercury

As the summer heats up, the mercury rises– and not just in thermometers. Mercury is climbing into the national debate over autism, a devastating development disorder that robs seemingly normal children of their ability to communicate. Days after Robert F. Kennedy Jr. compiled some research on the topic, an Albemarle-based author, Coy Barefoot, has announced that he is spearheading a new national organization called Dads Against Mercury.

"We're fighting for our kids," says Barefoot, "and we want answers." Barefoot, as avid Hook readers will recall, penned the April 7 Hook cover story ["Generation Hg: Is autism puzzle solved?"] which gave a generous hearing to a new look at autism.

The dramatic rise of the disorder– from about 1 in 2,500 children 15 years ago to about 1 in 166 today– has been viewed in some quarters as simply an indication of better testing, but Barefoot is among thousands of parents targeting the toxic metal, the key ingredient in a vaccine preservative called Thimerosal, as the cause of the increase.

How else to explain, supporters of the theory ask, an epidemic that turns functioning toddlers into silent drones, seemingly overnight? The heartbreaking explosion of autism cases seems to parallel the increased exposure to mercury, particularly in the recommended number of inoculations for children– from 11 in 1991 to 22 today.

"We were never told about the risks before a needle was put in our children's arms," says Barefoot, who believes that Thimerosal has poisoned a generation of susceptible children. Boys, in particular, now stand about a one in 80 chance of having autism.

Barefoot has felt the pain close-up. The father of twins, a boy and a girl, Barefoot says his two children got all the same shots. Both seemed to be progressing normally. They walked, talked, and interacted like all kids– until one day around the time of their first birthday two and a half years ago. That's when his son suddenly changed.

"I'll never forget the moment," says Barefoot. "He just stopped talking and stopped playing."

Barefoot points out that the cumulative dose of Thimerosal his children received far exceeded government guidelines. Thimerosal, moreover, has never undergone FDA-supervised clinical trials. Invented in the 1930s by Eli Lilly, the compound consists of about 50 percent mercury by weight and was "grandfathered" into the FDA's list of "safe" additives. Vaccine-makers have voluntarily phased it out over the past few years.

A 2003 investigation led by U.S. Senator Dan Burton (R-IN) found credible evidence to link Thimerosal to autism and blasted the FDA for being "asleep at the switch" in approving the preservative. Burton has recently been joined by Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman in calling for another Congressional investigation.

That's just what Barefoot's new group will be seeking when he joins other anti-mercury activists in a rally at the U.S. Capitol July 20.

Yet for all the evidence of harm caused by the toxic metal, there is some counter-evidence about its alleged link to autism. As the New York Times reminded June 25, "Five major studies have found no link."

"Those are five major junk-science studies," claims Barefoot. "They don't hold up."

If the words coming from parents hint at conspiracy, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of the slain presidential candidate and now a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, actually suggests a cover-up. Kennedy blames the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for such zealous vaccine advocacy that it hid the hazards.

In his late June article simultaneously published in Rolling Stone and Salon, Kennedy points to a secret meeting convened by the CDC in 2000 in Simpsonwood, Georgia.

"It's the most horrifying thing you can read," Kennedy tells MSNBC interviewer Joe Scarborough. "There are scientists there from the government who are saying– who are reading the reports– and saying, this is undeniable. I am not going to give this to my children, but now let's hide this from the American people."

A curious action by Congress during the final days of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in late 2002 also raised red flags: insertion in the 475-page bill of a short passage indemnifying Eli Lilly for possible Thimerosal claims. While Republican Congressman Dick Armey has taken responsibility for the last-minute addition and called it a necessary tool to ensure vital stocks of vaccines, some parents might be forgiven for their suspicions.

Barefoot says he's incensed that some Thimerosal defenders have attempted to paint parents of autistic children as opposed to childhood vaccines.

"I'm not against vaccines," says Barefoot. "I'm against dangerous vaccines."

Coy Barefoot believes his three-year-old son, Whitman, was poisoned by repeated doses of Thimerosal.