Review of Trace Amounts – bad science and conspiracies

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Opponents of legislation to tighten school immunization requirements have been promoting a movie called Trace Amounts to legislators and others. They seem to think this movie proves a link between thimerosal – a mercury-based preservative in vaccines – and autism. It shows, in their view, that our vaccine program is corrupt and harmful through and through, and hence is an argument against vaccine mandates. The movie, however, shows nothing of the sort. There is no new evidence in it, and it simply repeats old and disproven claims.

Trace Amounts – old news in a new package


The movie, Trace Amounts, opens with the story of Eric Gladen, one of the directors, whose health suddenly and unexplainably deteriorated. Distressed by his very serious symptoms, Mr. Gladen took to the Internet and researched them, finally arriving at the conclusion that he was poisoned by mercury. He also created a timeline and arrived at the conclusion that his symptoms started immediately after he received a tetanus vaccination that contained thimerosal (also known as thiomersal outside of the USA or, generically, ethyl mercury).

A search on the Internet convinced him that thimerosal in vaccines can cause his symptoms. He chose to follow a specific chelation protocol and apparently found a doctor willing to cooperate. His symptoms improved temporarily, and he believed chelation worked.

When his health deteriorated again, his doctor suggested thinking about other sources of exposure to mercury (there is no indication the doctor reconsidered that maybe the diagnosis of mercury poisoning was in error). Gladen concluded the return of his symptoms came from being exposed to mercury fumes from a broken lightbulb. Although further chelation did not seem to work, Mr. Gladen remained convinced that his symptoms are due to mercury poisoning, and he also concluded that his symptoms resemble autism.

The evidence that Mr. Gladen’s problems did, in fact, stem from the vaccine or mercury in any shape or form seems confined to his internet research and support from a doctor obviously willing to chelate for this “autism” in spite of the FDA warnings against that and the lack of a scientific basis for the treatment. But this belief led him to conclude thimerosal in vaccines is harmful, and from there he somehow arrived at the belief that it caused the autism epidemic and set out to make a movie.

Trace Amounts is a well-made movie. It is well paced, hits all the right notes to cause fear and doubt, and weaves arguments commonly made by groups who believe vaccines cause autism into a plausible-sounding story. But each of the building blocks used to construct the story is problematic – and the story itself ignores abundant data to the contrary.  In other words, this movie does a good job at presenting a misleading, inaccurate picture, and may trick people into believing something that isn’t true – and to leave their children at risk of disease based on that inaccurate information. That makes it dangerous.