Robert Kennedy Jr.’s belief in autism-vaccine connection, and its political peril

July 18

Robert F Kennedy Jr. in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building after meeting with Health and Human Services officials about childhood vaccines and autism. (Charlie Archambault/For The Washington Post)

Sen. Barbara Mikulski listened impassively as Robert Kennedy Jr. made his case. He had to talk over the din in the marbled hallway just outside the Senate chambers, where he was huddled with Mikulski, two of her aides and three allies of his who had come to Washington for this April meeting.

Kennedy, a longtime environmental activist and an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, had thought Mikulski would be receptive to an issue that has consumed him for a decade, even as friends and associates have told him repeatedly that it’s a lost cause. But she grew visibly impatient the longer he talked.

A mercury-containing preservative known as thimerosal, once used widely in childhood vaccines, is associated with an array of neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism, Kennedy told her, summarizing a body of scientific research he and a team of investigators had assembled. Thimerosal, which is an antifungal and antiseptic agent, was taken out of those vaccines in 2001, but it is still used in some flu vaccines. If it was dangerous enough to be removed from pediatric vaccines, Kennedy contended, why was it safe at all? What’s more, he said, the federal government knew of the dangers all along. These were claims he had made in the past, both publicly and in private conversations with other Democrats in Congress, none of whom have taken him seriously.

The Maryland Democrat turned from Kennedy without a word. “I want to hear what you have to say,” Mikulski said, looking up at the lean man standing next to her. Mark Hyman, a physician and best-selling author, is Kennedy’s chief collaborator on a then-unpublished book titled “Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak,” which is scheduled to come out next week. The book argues that ethylmercury — a component of thimerosal — is harmful to human health. (Not so in trace amounts, scientific authorities have concluded.)

“The bottom line,” Hyman said to Mikulski: “We shouldn’t be injecting a neurotoxin into pregnant women and children.” Thimerosal should be taken out of the flu vaccine, Hyman and Kennedy argued.

Mikulski didn’t react, except to suggest they contact Sen. Bernie Sanders, who “cares about brain health” and oversees a related subcommittee.

As the meeting broke up, Mikulski’s brusque disposition toward Kennedy softened. “We miss your uncle here every day,” she said, referring to Sen. Edward Kennedy, a tenacious public health advocate during his long Senate career. He died of cancer in 2009.

Robert Kennedy Jr. said nothing. He was used to getting the brush-off by now. And he was already thinking ahead to his next move.


A pre-publication cover of Kennedy’s book. (For the Washington Post)

Kennedy arrives at Reagan National Airport to make appearances at various events in May. He is escorted by John E. Shanks of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. (Joseph Victor Stefanchik/For The Washington Post)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Institute of Medicine, no evidence supports a link between thimerosal and any brain disorders, including autism. But parental concerns of such an association in the 1990s spurred vaccine fears. This owed to a confluence of factors: highly publicized warnings of mercury-contaminated fish; rising awareness and diagnoses of autism; and vaccines added to the childhood schedule. The CDC urged vaccine makers to remove thimerosal as a precautionary measure.

Some parents took this as proof of thimerosal’s harm. The controversy, which Kennedy helped fuel in the 2000s with a notorious, widely publicized article, prompted additional vaccine fears that linger to this day.

A 2013 study in the journal Pediatrics found that recent cases of whooping cough occurred in pockets where vaccine resisters were located. Public health experts blame recent measles outbreaks on resisters. Both diseases were almost wiped out in the United States until the vaccine fear struck.

Kennedy, fit at 60, insists he doesn’t want to fan these fears. All six of his children — ages 13 to 29 — have been fully vaccinated, he says. But he disputes the consensus opinion that trace amounts of thimerosal are no cause for concern. Some researchers are sympathetic to this view.

“We know from the biological literature that extremely low doses [of mercury] are harmful,” says Martha Herbert, a pediatric neurologist and autism researcher at Harvard University. “To me, it’s a no-brainer. Why would you put a neurotoxin in vaccines?”

Herbert accompanied Kennedy and Hyman in Washington. The discourse on vaccination is so highly charged that “you can’t say anything without immediately being labeled,” she says. “This is the most delicate issue I’ve ever dealt with in my life.”

Almost immediately after getting rebuffed by Mikulski, Kennedy and his contingent were sitting around a long conference table in the office of Bernie Sanders, pleading their case to the junior senator from Vermont. Sanders had no idea what the impromptu meeting was about.

The normally voluble, white-haired senator was convivial, then, as Kennedy got going, fell silent. “We don’t want to publish this book,” Kennedy told him, holding up a copy of his manuscript. “We are very pro-vaccine.” He motioned to Hyman across the table. “Vaccines save lives. We don’t want to alarm the public by showing them the science. We have a publisher lined up, ready to publish it. But we said no.”

Kennedy had told me the same thing last summer — that they would publish only to prod federal officials into action. This is when I learned that he was sending the manuscript to political allies, university health experts and CDC officials.

Sanders was polite but noncommittal. “I don’t know anything about the issue,” he told Kennedy. “I can’t promise you anything.”


Pallbearers, including a young Robert F. Kennedy Jr., carry the coffin of Sen. Robert Kennedy to the grave site at Arlington National Cemetery on June 8, 1968. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Robert Kennedy Jr. belongs to a storied political family whose tragedies are woven into the American fabric. The third of Robert and Ethel’s 11 children, he was 9 when Lee Harvey Oswald killed his Uncle John, the 35th president. He was 14 when Sirhan Sirhan killed his father, who was running for president.

After his father’s death, the teenaged Kennedy experimented with drugs, like many of that generation’s youth. A reckless period spiraled into addiction and led to his arrest for heroin possession in 1983. He cleaned up, then embarked on a successful career as an environmental lawyer. He is also a professor at Pace University in White Plains, N.Y., where he runs a law clinic.

He travels the country, giving 200 speeches a year, many on renewable energy. He sits on the boards of several green tech companies and is heavily involved in solar and wind power construction projects, with business that takes him to Europe, China and the Mideast.

His private life, befitting a Kennedy, has been fodder for the gossip pages. He had two children with his first wife, Emily Black. Three weeks after their divorce in 1994, he married Mary Richardson. They had four children, then Kennedy filed for divorce in 2010 and took up with Cheryl Hines, the actress who played Larry David’s wife on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” They plan to marry in August at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. Mary took her own life in 2012. A year later, embarrassing 10-year-old entries from Kennedy’s private journals made tabloid headlines.

Kennedy has taken on unpopular causes before. In 2002, his cousin Michael Skakel, 53, was convicted of murdering Martha Moxley, when both were teenagers and next-door neighbors in an affluent Connecticut suburb. After examining the evidence, Kennedy became convinced his cousin was railroaded by frenzied, one-sided media coverage and a deeply flawed court case. Kennedy laid out his defense in a long article for the Atlantic magazine, published in 2003.

Last year, after more than a decade in jail, Skakel was released on bail after a judge determined that he did not receive adequate legal representation. He will be retried. (Kennedy is writing a book about the case.)

In the early 2000s, women started coming up to Kennedy at his talks on how mercury emissions from coal-fired plants contaminate the air and water. The women argued that “the real mercury was in vaccines,” and it was being ignored, Kennedy recalls.

At first he didn’t pay any attention, either, until one of his brothers introduced him to a clinical psychologist whose young son was autistic. She blamed thimerosal. “I said to her, ‘I’ll look into the science,’ ” he says. Kennedy threw himself into a debate just starting to percolate. Some would say he got lost in a rabbit hole.

In 2005, he published an explosive story for Rolling Stone magazine and Salon called “Deadly Immunity.” Kennedy wrote that he had uncovered evidence showing “how government health agencies colluded with Big Pharma to hide the risks of thimerosal from the public.” At first, he was feted like a prizewinning muckraker. On “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart praised him. On MSNBC, Joe Scarborough fawned: “Let’s get you running for a public office.”

Then came the backlash. Critics charged Kennedy with quoting material out of context. Rolling Stone had to make corrections. Enough doubts were raised that Salon eventually retracted the story. Unbowed, Kennedy stands by the piece and admits to only a few inconsequential errors.

As the applause turned to denunciation, Kennedy simply doubled down.


Kennedy visits the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial during National Police Week. (Joseph Victor Stefanchik/For The Washington Post)

The more Kennedy talked on the subject, the

more his rhetoric became hyperbolic. During one 2011 segment on his Air America radio show, he accused government scientists of being “involved in a massive fraud.” He said they skewed studies to demonstrate the safety of thimerosal. “I can see that this fraud is doing extraordinary damage to the brains of American children,” he said.

Last year, he gave the keynote speech at an anti-vaccine gathering in Chicago. There, he said of a scientist who is a vocal proponent of vaccines and already the object of much hate mail from anti-vaccine activists that this scientist and others like him, “should be in jail, and the key should be thrown away.”

Last summer I reported on these inflammatory comments for the Discover magazine Web site, where I have a blog. (I write often about contentious issues in science.) I concluded that Kennedy “has done as much as anyone to spread unwarranted fear and crazy conspiracy theories about vaccines.”

A few days later, Kennedy called. “I’m trying to figure out whether you are a shill for Big Pharma,” he said straight away. He then talked without pause, reprising the claims made in his Rolling Stone article, which I learned he had expanded into a book manuscript.

After talking nonstop for nearly an hour, Kennedy asked if I would be willing to look at the manuscript. I said yes. But I told him that I was extremely dubious. I wasn’t the only skeptical one. When he sent his manuscript to friends and colleagues, asking in a cover letter “for your advice and support,” the silence was crushing.

Most of those who did respond were dismissive. Philip Landrigan, a leading public health advocate and physician who heads the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, offered a reply that stung. “We were buddies,” Kennedy said. “I got a curt note back from him, saying, ‘This isn’t worthwhile, and this is an effort you should immediately abandon.’ ”

Kennedy remained defiant. “The only way I can stop this is if someone shows me I’m wrong on the science.”

He kept me apprised of his efforts. In September he got a “terse” letter from the National Vaccine Program Office, acknowledging that this is a complex issue but that there was no evidence that thimerosal in vaccines is harmful.

Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of California’s Mind Institute in Davis, was one of the few scientists willing to read Kennedy’s manuscript. “It’s a mixed bag,” she said to me over the phone. She believed that Kennedy had stacked the book with too many problematic studies that he cites as evidence of thimerosal’s contribution to neurodevelopmental disorders. “But it is not true that there is a body of scientific evidence that has put this question to rest, as the CDC asserts.” In fact, on a possible connection between autism and thimerosal, she said, “I think the question still remains to be answered.”

In November, Kennedy texted me about “the incredible conversation I just had with [then-Health and Human Services Secretary] Kathleen Sebelius,” who would green-light an upcoming meeting between him and CDC officials.

He had reason, it seemed, to be hopeful.


From left, Al Gore, Lorraine Bracco, Kennedy and Cheryl Hines attend an award dinner at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights in 2011. (Rob Kim/GETTY IMAGES FOR RFK CENTER)

In January, I met Kennedy at his Westchester home, where history stares out from every wall. In the living room, where we settled in, there is a black-and-white photo of Bobby Jr. in the Oval Office, the day he talked to his uncle about the environment. “He arranged for me to meet Rachel Carson and Stewart Udall,” Kennedy recalled. Carson had recently written “Silent Spring,” now a classic book about the dangers of pesticides; Udall was President Kennedy’s secretary of the interior.

Kennedy invokes Carson as an inspiration, because her character was viciously attacked after the publication of “Silent Spring” in 1962. I pointed out to him that the villain in that case was the chemical industry, whereas he is accusing the federal government, primarily the CDC. He contends that it commissioned “fraudulent” studies to exculpate thimerosal so public confidence in the vaccine program wouldn’t be undermined.

“Meanwhile, there are 500 studies that we’ve collected here and footnoted” — he pointed to the manuscript on the coffee table — “and not a single one of them shows that thimerosal is safe. Every single one of them, except for the six studies funded by CDC and the vaccine industry. And that are fraudulent. And we explain how they created the fraud.”

I said I had a hard time believing that something this blatant would be ignored by the entire science establishment. He said I had to distinguish between the research scientists, who have expressed concerns about thimerosal, and government scientists, who protect a bureaucracy.

If that were true, I argued, why weren’t the public health and environmental communities and big research centers seizing on his book as a call to action?

“Nobody wants to read this,” he said, tapping the manuscript. “Their advice is, ‘Don’t wreck your career; don’t destroy your credibility. You are going to destroy yourself.’ ”

Months later, Kennedy called me in despair. He was under tremendous pressure from associates to drop the book — and the issue. “They want me to cease and desist,” he says. Landrigan had stopped returning his calls, and his colleagues at NRDC were turning a deaf ear.

“I’m completely f------ alone on this,” he said.


Kennedy catches up on business at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund offices. (Joseph Victor Stefanchik/For The Washington Post)

In April, several weeks after meeting with Mikulski and Sanders, Kennedy and Hyman met with CDC officials and scientists from the FDA and National Institutes of Health. Hyman left encouraged. “I think it was a big success,” he said. Kennedy was not as jubilant, though he did note with an air of satisfaction: “Nobody challenged our science.”

A tape of the proceeding reveals that CDC officials did, indeed, let Kennedy’s and Hyman’s assertions about thimersol’s toxicity stand mostly unchallenged. The regulators focused on the efficacy of the vaccine preservative (which is still used widely in the developing world) and cited a 2012 World Health Organization declaration that thimerosal is safe.

Near the end of the hour-long meeting, Jeremy Sharp, the science and public health counselor to the secretary of health and human services, said, “We just had new CDC data that came out that shows another increase with kids with autism.” (One in 68 U.S. children has been identified with autism, 30 percent higher than what was estimated in 2012.) Sharp then reminded Kennedy and Hyman that thimerosal was taken out of pediatric vaccines nearly 15 years ago. The implication: Autism is not linked to thimerosal.

Hyman tried to deflect this. “Yes, there’s been an increase in autism, even as we take out thimerosal,” he acknowledged. “But the issue isn’t whether thimerosal is causing these problems.” Rather, the larger issue, he said, was whether it was toxic and a potential contributor to neurodevelopmental disorders.

The CDC officials agreed to take a fresh look at the evidence presented by Kennedy and Hyman and pledged to keep communicating with them.

Was Kennedy’s persistence finally paying off?

He wanted more than vague goodwill gestures, though. When the CDC officials stopped answering his follow-up calls, Kennedy got antsy. Whatever concerns he once had about alarming the public soon gave way to concerns about foot-dragging federal bureaucrats.

He decided to publish the book. A boutique imprint, Skyhorse Publishing, has rushed it into print. Some of the most controversial sections — the chapters connecting autism to thimerosal — Kennedy took out at the last minute, though there are still references to a link to autism. Hyman convinced him that such claims were too combustible and would distract from the book’s core argument, that “the evidence suggesting a link between thimerosal and a large percentage of neurodevelopment disorders … mandates action.”

They were soft-pedaling for a better reception, but Kennedy made it clear to me his convictions hadn’t changed.

In May, Kennedy was the keynote speaker at the River Rally conference, which took place in a Pittsburgh ballroom and was packed with hundreds of environmentalists. He spoke of humanity’s “apocalyptic battle” with Earth’s despoilers. There were moral overtones, a call to find a higher, sacred meaning in nature, particularly wilderness. The adoring crowd hooted and whistled in appreciation. “I am going to be here fighting with you,” he exhorted, in closing. Everyone rose, cheering and clapping.

The day after his Pittsburgh speech, I met with Kennedy in his hotel room. He reflected somewhat bitterly on the difficulties of his other crusades. He told me he undertook his cousin’s case because “nobody would touch it.” In his 2003 Atlantic piece, Kennedy wrote: “At its best, every profession — law, science, medicine, journalism — is a search for the truth. But personal bias can distort and pervert that mission.”

Has Kennedy lost his way on the vaccine issue, too biased to judge the truth? Kennedy doesn’t think so, though he acknowledges that he has made himself “radioactive” by staying with it.

“Look at all the people I’m fighting,” he said, referring to officials and scientists at the CDC and other federal agencies. “These are people who care about children and public health. So many of them have said to me, ‘I got into this because I was inspired by your father to give my life to public service.’ It’s hard to go against those people.”

Still, he says he can’t — and won’t — walk away from the issue.

In case I didn’t get that message, a few seconds after we said goodbye, he popped out of his hotel room and called out to me down the hallway. He caught up with me. “One thing that keeps me buoyant about this, because otherwise, I’d be depressed,” he said. “I know I’m gonna win this one. I have the ability to push this over the finish line. I know I do. The truth will prevail.”

Keith Kloor is a writer living in New York.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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