Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Vaccine Formaldehyde : When an Anti-Vaxxer Attempts Math

Imagine a parent whose child is about to be vaccinated.  She comes across information claiming the horrors of a common ingredient in vaccines which happens to be a chemical that can change a person's DNA and cause cancer.  A chemical so awful that people are cautioned about its carcinogenic abilities and are warned that it's a toxic irritant to eyes, the respiratory system, and even skin.  The horrifying chemical in question?  Formaldehyde.  Yes, the same chemical used to embalm the dead.  Any parent in their right mind would be looking for the nearest exit and scooping up their child to make a break for it before this horrible chemical is injected into their baby, right?  Well, actually, no and here's why.

So the other day when I was in a long Twitter thread about the toxicity of aluminum in vaccines (another topic very well discussed elsewhere - it's not really toxic), up popped a tweet that was a goal post change out of nowhere about formaldehyde.

Yeah I couldn't read it either so I clicked on the link which led to the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for formaldehyde 37% solution and looked at the pictures which were just screenshots of the MSDS with certain parts highlighted:

Suddenly a discussion about vaccine aluminum morphed into the topic of formaldehyde - presumably the same formaldehyde in vaccines.  I rejoiced!  Why?  Because I was a chemistry major and this particular anti-vaccine trope is so easily addressed and I could use math (which I love) to do it.  So here's what happened after she decided to pursue this line of reasoning.  This is a very very condensed version because the number of tweets that resulted was, literally, hundreds.

My reply to Emcc2's (Em's) tweet which sparked the crazy ensuing tweet fest?

Em's reply?

This went on, literally, over the next couple of hours back and forth where I asked the exact same question probably 20 times.  Why did I ask it?  For several reasons:

(1)  Anti-vaxxers are notoriously bad at math
(2)  It was the beginning of several pieces of data that would clearly illustrate why formaldehyde in vaccines is not the monstrous problem that anti-vaxxers make it out to be
(3)  To illustrate that if you don't even know basic chemistry calculations and have no idea how much formaldehyde there is in a vaccine, you can't possibly be trusted to know anything about vaccine formaldehyde or safety.

So lo and behold, Em popped up again the next morning with an answer.  But her answer didn't come until well after another anti-vaxxer thought they would do an intervention and help her out:

Yes!  The answer to my question.  Here's the math to explain:

The formaldehyde that Em referred to in her MSDS link was in a 37% formaldehyde solution which means that there is 37 grams (g) of formaldehyde in 100 milliliters (mL) of solution.  Doing some simple math:

37 g / 100 mL divided by 100 = 0.37 g/1 mL divided by 2 = 0.185 g/0.5 mL x 1000 mg/g = 185 mg/0.5 mL

So my followup question was how much formaldehyde is there in a 0.5 mL vaccine dose?  The question makes total sense at this point.  Well, at least for me it did.

We went round and round about this too.  Even when I suggested googling the answer and told him excatly what to enter into the search box to find the answer, he refused to do it.

So now Em has woken up and pops in with her answer to my original question.

She had not only tweeted her wrong answer once at 9:14 am but 2 more times over the next half hour.

Note she even tweeted the same wrong answer as a reply to RightWingBLKMAN (RW) who had already given the right answer.

What ensued afterwards was an entire day of exchanges as to why she didn't actually make a mistake. She listed the following:

(1)  "I already answered, you're a liar."

(2)  "I gave you answer both for 5 mL and for 0.5 mL" (true but only after she was corrected on her original error).
(3)  "It was correct for 5 mL so, therefore, I was correct."  (Something no chemistry professor would ever give you credit for).

(4)  "I have dyslexia and thought it was 5 mL not 0.5 mL."  I'm pretty sure dyslexia doesn't cause you to completely miss a leading zero and decimal point.  And, no, you didn't correct yourself.

When she finally gets around to admitting it's 185 mg/0.5 mL, the next piece of information to collect was the amount of formaldehyde actually in a 0.5 mL dose of a vaccine.  Alas, despite asking another 40-50 times, this answer has never surfaced from them even after a suggestion to just google it.

When you google:  "how much formaldehyde in vaccine", here's what you get:

If you click the very first link, you get this:

After repeating this second question many many times, Em claims that she already answered it.  I think she was clearly confused that I was asking a different question - or was being clearly dishonest.

Both Em and RW even later claim that they can just do the calculation themselves for the amount of formaldehyde in a 0.5 mL dose of a vaccine.  Googling for the correct solution concentraion used in a vaccine just to do the calculation would be harder, I would think, than just simply googling the answer.  I doubt Em has ever calculated that before as she claims.

Dumb and pointless to know how much formaldehyde is actually in a vaccine dose?  When you're suggesting that formaldehyde in a vaccine is "toxic" or "dangerous" and people should seek immediate medical attention from exposure?  And claim that vaccine formaldehyde safety studies should be done?

We now have 2 pieces of data:  In the 37% formaldehyde solution that Em linked to and highlighted, there's 185 mg of formaldehyde in just 0.5 mL.  In a 0.5 mL dose of a vaccine, the most formaldehyde it has is 0.02 mg.  An apt comparison?  Not even close.  But then even Em admits that this solution is not actually used in a vaccine so what was the reason she tweeted it during a vaccine discussion?  Surely it wasn't to be intentionally deceptive was it?

But wait, what other pieces of data do we need before having a rational discussion about a vaccine or injectable formaldehyde safety study?  Well, it would help to know what the other sources of formaldehyde are.  Many people are surprised to find out that formaldehyde occurs naturally in the foods we eat - as illustrated in this fairly large list of foods.  Additionally, most people don't know that the human body actually produces formaldehyde naturally as discussed in this very detailed blog about formaldehyde.

So here are the inconvenient facts for the anti-vaxxers out there who think formaldehyde is clear evidence that vaccines are harmful:

The toxicity information about formaldehyde is based on an enormous amount of the chemical - 185 mg vs 0.02 mg in a vaccine.  In addition, we need to also consider that foods like a pear have around 10 mg of formaldehyde and the normal amount of circulating formaldehyde in an infant is about 1 mg - yes, that's the amount that is made by the human body and is freely circulating in the blood.  So the bottom line is, the amount of formaldehyde in a vaccine is so small - it's even less than what an infant normally produces.  (0.02 mg vs 1 mg)

Just a brief mention about the idea of "natural" formaldehyde vs "synthetic" formaldehyde that anti-vaxxers tend to like to throw out:

So what about those vaccine injectable formaldehyde safety studies?  This was perhaps the only point that Em was actually right about.  I knew there were no vaccine formaldehyde safety studies going into this long exercise.  That would be about as meaningful as claiming bras cause breast cancer or are dangerous because of a lack of studies demonstrating their safety.

Lastly, Em still makes claims over and over again about how I lied during this entire encounter.  When asked to prove her assertion with a screenshot, she has avoided doing so.  This should be of no surprise as false claims are made routinely by anti-vaxxers without any corroborating evidence - that is the crux of their methods to argue against the safety and efficacy of vaccines.  Using a couple of questions and some pretty straight forward math, it's easy to demonstrate that they're being very dishonest.