Respectful Insolence

I love it when an antivax “study” meant to show how “dirty” vaccines are backfires so spectacularly

When antivaccinationists try to pull out the "toxins" gambit, they're trying to make you think vaccines are made this way.

I’ve frequently written about what I like to refer to as the “toxins gambit” with respect to vaccines. Basically, in the hard core (and even soft core) antivaccine crowd, vaccines are feared as being loaded with all sorts of “toxins,” such as aluminum, formaldehyde, mercury, and various chemicals that are dangerous enough separately, but, when combined, “poison” young babies, resulting in their becoming autistic, acquiring asthma and autoimmune diseases, or even dying of sudden infant death syndrome. Of course, many of the scary-sounding chemicals to which antivaccinationists point actually are in vaccines, but, as Paracelsus put it, the dose makes the poison, and the amount in vaccines is very much low enough not to pose a health threat. Also, formaldehyde is a product of normal metabolism present in the bloodstream of infants at a level much higher than what any vaccine contains.

So fearful of contamination of the precious bodily fluids of their babies are antivaccinationists (and, let’s be real, it really does boil down to just that in many cases) that it’s not enough to demonize vaccines based on the harmless ingredients that do make them up. They have to go beyond that and demonize vaccines based on what isn’t even in them. Right now, that misinformation takes the form of what looks on the surface like a real scientific paper. That’s what’s happening right now with a paper by Antonietta Gatti and Stefano Montanari in the International Journal of Vaccines and Vaccination entitled New Quality-Control Investigations on Vaccines: Micro- and Nanocontamination. It’s a paper I found through an article being circulated in antivaccine circles by the Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute (CMSRI), an group made up mainly of antivaccine cranks, in an article entitled Dirty Vaccines: New Study Reveals Prevalence of Contaminants. Note the “dirty vaccines” title. That is very much a matter of faith in much of the antivaccine community, that vaccines are “dirty,” hence the rants about DNA, monkey cells, formaldehyde, and the rest in vaccines. The article cranks the fear mongering up to 11 right from the beginning:

Every Human Vaccine Tested Was Contaminated by Unsafe Levels of Metals and Debris Linked to Cancer and Autoimmune Disease, New Study Reports

Researchers examining 44 samples of 30 different vaccines found dangerous contaminants, including red blood cells in one vaccine and metal toxicants in every single sample tested – except in one animal vaccine.

Using extremely sensitive new technologies not used in vaccine manufacturing, Italian scientists reported they were “baffled” by their discoveries which included single particles and aggregates of organic debris including red cells of human or possibly animal origin and metals including lead, tungsten, gold, and chromium, that have been linked to autoimmune disease and leukemia.

Wow. Sounds really, really scary, doesn’t it? The authors, after all, used electron microscopy, specifically a Field Emission Gun Environmental Electron Scanning Microscope equipped with the X-ray microprobe of an Energy Dispersive Spectroscope to detect the possible presence of inorganic, particulate contaminants and identify their chemical composition, to examine the vaccines and found all sorts of scary-looking stuff! My first response was: Unsafe levels. You keep using that term. I do not think it means what you think it means. My second response was: Baffled? Only if you have no idea what you are doing and talking about. You’ll see why in a moment, when I take a look at the paper you’ll see something that looks like a perfectly normal scientific paper. However, if you look at the publisher that publishes it, MedCrave, there are warning flags:

MedCrave is an Open Access Publishing website that contains ample scientific research information on categorized topics. MedCrave is a huge Online Publishing Library, where anyone can view, share and download research papers. The subjects covered here are vast, and every paper here is approved by the Editor and is peer reviewed. Unlike other Online Publishing Groups, MedCrave is the place for developing your educational standards and making yourself well acquainted with the latest research and development in all the fields. The authors of the research papers contribute a lot in making us one of the finest Online Publishing Groups and they also build up their prestige in MedCrave and the readers benefit from the reputed papers. The research papers from MedCrave also have an added visibility from all over the world. There is no charge viable for using MedCrave in any way.

This is what MedCrave means by peer review. Look at its flowsheet, and you will see that it looks as though there is almost no way for your paper to be rejected, period. In fact, I laughed at the flowsheet, having never seen anything like it in any legitimate scientific journal. Not surprisingly, MedCrave is included on Beall’s List of Predatory Publishers, basically a list of “pay to publish” open access journals who charge significant sums to authors to publish their work but whose editorial oversite and peer review are—shall we say?—lacking.

But what about the paper itself? Basically it’s a lot of fear mongering rooted in either biological ignorance or intentional deception (take your pick—there is no third option, although I concede it could be a combination of the two). I’ll show you what I mean. The authors show this photomicrograph of crystals of saline solution and aluminum phosphate and corresponding energy dispersive X-ray spectra (EDS spectra).

Aluminum crystals, chosen for maximal scariness.

They write this about the photo:

Figure 1a shows a layer of crystals of Sodium chloride (NaCl) embedding salts of Aluminum phosphate (AlPO4) in a drop of Gardasil (anti-HPV vaccine by Merck) as the EDS spectrum (Figure 1b) shows. Saline is the fluid base to any vaccine preparation and Aluminum salts or Aluminum hydroxide [Al(OH)3] are the adjuvants which are usually added.

Looking at the area outside these precipitates but inside the liquid drop, we identified other things: single particles, clusters of particles and aggregates (organic-inorganic composites) that are due to an interaction of the inorganic particulate matter with the organic part of the vaccine.

Wow! That looks scary, doesn’t it? Basically, though, the authors are looking at a big aluminum phosphate crystal, given how the samples are prepared for electron microscopy:

A drop of about 20 microliter of vaccine is released from the syringe on a 25-mm-diameter cellulose filter (Millipore, USA), inside a flow cabinet. The filter is then deposited on an Aluminum stub covered with an adhesive carbon disc. The sample is immediately put inside a clean box in order to avoid any contamination and the box is re-opened only for the sample to be inserted inside the FEG-ESEM chamber. We selected that particular type of microscope as it allows to analyse watery and oily samples in low vacuum (from 10 to 130 Pa) at a high sensitivity.

When the water and saline the vaccine contains are evaporated, the biological/physical components emerge on the filter and it is then possible to observe them. This type of microscope

I’m not an expert in electron microscopy (EM), but I know that samples for EM generally have to be examined under vacuum. That’s why, in the case of biological samples, you can’t look at living cells. If you take a liquid sample and put it under even low vacuum, it evaporates. What’s left? Crystals and precipitates. Also, as you might imagine, EM is very, very sensitive. So it’s going to pick up incredibly tiny, biologically irrelevant amounts of everything. Antivaccinationists are obsessed with “purity”; so even these tiny amounts of “contaminants” will alarm them, and CMSRI knows that. Whether the authors of the article themselves know this or not, I don’t know or care, but I do care that their article is now being used to frighten parents.

What follows, then, is a series of photomicrographs of all sorts of particles that they found after evaporating 44 vaccines from four different countries, as listed in Table 1 of the paper. If you look at the other tables, you’ll see that the authors list all sorts of scary-sounding metals and compounds ranging from tungsten to aluminum to silicone to gold, to zirconium, all, ominously, “embedded in biological substrate” (i.e., precipitated proteins, which is what you would expect to find if you evaporated a vaccine, along with the minerals from the salt solution). The key table in the paper, however, for a chemist (my undergraduate major was chemistry before I went to medical school, and I took a considerable number of biochemistry and biochemistry-related classes during my education, both undergraduate and graduate) is Table 3. Look at it. More importantly, look at the numbers of precipitates found per sample. It ranges from two to 1,821.

O.M.G.! 1,821 particles! Holy crap! That’s horrible! The antivaxers are right that vaccines are hopelessly contaminated!

No. They. Are. Not.

Look at it this way. This is what was found in 20 μl (that’s microliters) of liquid. That’s 0.00002 liters. That means, in a theoretical liter of the vaccine, the most that one would find is 91,050,000 (9.105 x 107) particles! Holy hell! That’s a lot. We should be scared, shouldn’t we? well, no. Let’s go back to our homeopathy knowledge and look at Avogadro’s number. One mole of particles = 6.023 x 1023. So divide 91,050,000 by Avogadro’s number, and you’ll get the molarity of a solution of 91,050,000 particle in a liter, as a 1 M solution would contain 6.023 x 1023 particles. So what’s the concentration:

1.512 x 10-16 M. that’s 0.15 femtomolar (fM) (or 150 altomolar), an incredibly low concentration. And that’s the highest amount the investigators found. In reality, what they actually found is that vaccines are incredibly pure!

Yes, I know that I’ve simplified the calculations and that particles are not molecules [as has been pointed out in the comments]. I did it not to be perfectly scientifically, chemically accurate in a way that I’d do if I were in the lab doing an experiment. I used this example just to illustrate how a large number like 1,821 is not so very large at all. Then remember that 1,821 was the largest number of particles found in any vaccine. The vast majority of them contained many fewer particles, sometimes single digits numbers. Moreover, I note that the authors of the paper don’t report the concentration of the particles anywhere in their paper, an unconscionable and likely intentional omission that led me to look for an exercise to estimate and illustrate just how small these numbers are. I realize it’s an imperfect example; so let’s look at another, one that our friend the Skeptical Raptor uses:

Therein lies the most problematic issue with the data. The numbers are well below the level of biological activity, if these various chemicals even have biological activity (most don’t). For example, the authors found 1569 particles or precipitates in one drop of Cervarix (an anti-HPV vaccine). Sounds horrific right? Except that one drop of vaccine contains around 1.39 X 10^21 individual molecules. This so called contamination approximately 0.0000000000000000000719% of these so called contaminants.

In that Cervarix sample, the researchers found aluminum hydroxide, one of those scary sounding compounds. Let’s say every one of those 1569 particles was aluminum hydroxide, it would mean that around 0.000000000001 ng of aluminum hydroxide in a vial of vaccine. That is simply biologically irrelevant. Even if the aluminum hydroxide was found, it’s level is so low, that the human body wouldn’t notice it. You breathe in more aluminum on a normal day than you would ever find in a vial of vaccine.

Let me repeat for emphasis. The investigators think that what they found is that vaccines are contaminated with all sorts of inorganic metals. What they really found is that the amount of inorganic contamination is so low as to be biologically irrelevant. In fact, what they found is that vaccines are incredibly pure products.

And I didn’t even get into a very good question that our scaly friend asked: What were the controls? What would you find if you carried out the same analyses on tap water, for instance? It could very well be that syringe used to draw up and deposit the specimen could be the source of the “contamination.” Hell, it could just as easily be the cellulose matrix on which the specimens are deposited for analysis that were responsible for the “contamination.” I’m familiar with those filters, as they are commonly used in molecular biology. They are not ultra-pure. How were they stored? Often filters can pick up dust from the air. Whatever the source of the particles observed, without controls, there’s no way of knowing if the source was the vaccines or not. It could be that vaccines are even more pure than this study shows!

Now, knowing this, go and read the discussion and conclusion of this paper. You will laugh, and you should laugh. The investigators deserve nothing but mockery for this idiocy, such as:

We come across particles with chemical compositions, similar to those found in the vaccines we analyzed, when we study cases of environmental contamination caused by different pollution sources. In most circumstances, the combinations detected are very odd as they have no technical use, cannot be found in any material handbook and look like the result of the random formation occurring, for example, when waste is burnt. In any case, whatever their origin, they should not be present in any injectable medicament, let alone in vaccines, more in particular those meant for infants.

Other forms of so-far unknown contaminations have recently been observed and, in any case, vaccines contain components that could themselves be the cause of adverse effects. It is a well-known fact in toxicology that contaminants exert a mutual, synergic effect, and as the number of contaminants increases, the effects grow less and less predictable. The more so when some substances are unknown.

Yes, laugh, because what Gatti and Montanari actually showed is that the level of inorganic contamination in vaccines is minuscule, suggesting that the manufacturing processes used to make them are very, very good at making sure that vaccines are pure, given that none of the vaccines contained more inorganic particles at a concentration higher than 0.15 femtomolar. But also get angry at the deception and cry that there will be parents taken in by this ridiculous paper, as groups like CSMRI spread it far and wide with terrifying language about “contamination.” Given that the CMSRI’s scientific advisory board includes antivaccine “scientists” like Christopher Shaw, Yehuda Shoenfeld, Richard Deth, Stephanie Seneff, and Vicky Debold, along with some others I’m not familiar with, it’s not at all surprising that CMSRI loves it. It also amuses me to no end that the “scientific board” didn’t see the obvious problems with this paper.

That’s because it’s all about antivaccine fear mongering, not science.