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SIFF filmmakers Eric Gladen and Shilo Levine say Trace Amounts isn’t an anti-vaccine documentary, they say they just want mercury removed from vaccines. But many experts think all this controversy around childhood vaccinations is unnecessary, and is causing the spread of diseases like polio and measles. 

Controversial SIFF film claims link between mercury and autism

Between a resurgence of polio in the Middle East and Africa, whooping cough making a comeback here in the United States, and celebrities like Jenny McCarthy claiming her son's autism was caused by vaccines, the fight over whether or not get children vaccinated has reached a fever pitch.

But the filmmakers behind Trace Amounts, showing at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) today and Sunday, May 25, say the movie isn't anti-vaccine. Instead, directors Eric Gladen and Shilo Levine say they believe it's the mercury in vaccines that causes autism. They say their goal is to get the mercury removed, and that it isn't the vaccines themselves that are the problem.

"Yes, if I had kids, I would get them vaccinated," Gladen told me. "But I would do it differently than the current vaccines schedule. I certainly wouldn't give them a vaccine with thiomersal in it. And I wouldn't give them more than one a day."

Thiomersal contains mercury and has been used as a preservative in vaccines since the 1930s to prevent bacterial and fungal contamination. Gladen claims it was the thiomersal in a tetanus shot that sent him on his filmmaking journey.

"I was a 29-year-old engineer and I got scratched with a rusty nail in my backyard," Gladen said. "I hadn't had a tetanus shot in eleven years or so, so I went and got a routine shot. Within a few days, some symptoms developed. And then slowly over time, over about three to six months, major neurological symptoms kicked in."

Gladen says it was a long process, with a lot of different tests and doctors, to finally figure out what was causing his illness.

"Ultimately, it was pinned directly to that tetanus shot," he said. "Once I got on a protocol that would remove the mercury, my symptoms started to disappear. And in about six months, all of my symptoms were gone."

Gladen says his medical journey caused him to spend the next ten years researching mercury, which then led him to take a look at the ongoing controversy about whether or not thiomersal caused autism in children.

"I want to show scientific documents that no one's really seen, and leaked emails and transcripts that no one's really heard," he said.

Once SIFF officials announced they would be showing Trace Amounts, they started receiving angry calls about the harm the movie could do by spreading fear. Plenty of people in the scientific community would also disagree with Gladen, saying that it's never been proven that there is a link between thiomersal or vaccinations, and autism.

Now that some infectious diseases like polio, measles, and whooping cough are making a comeback around the globe, plenty of experts are worried about the lack of vaccinations children are receiving. In fact, the World Health Organization released a statement earlier this month calling the spread of polio in 2014 a "public health emergency of international concern."

"If unchecked, this situation could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world's most serious vaccine-preventable diseases," read the statement. "It constitutes an 'extraordinary event.'"

When I asked Gladen if he was worried that Trace Amounts could spread more fear, and keep more children from becoming vaccinated, he said he was.

"I'm actually very concerned about that," he said. "I've done a lot of research on infectious disease as well, and I am very scared of the spread of those. We've made substantial changes to the film throughout these last few years to try to re-emphasize that this isn't about vaccines; the film's sole purpose is to remove the mercury from vaccines right away. I just want people to watch the film and give us a chance. Don't make assumptions before you've seen it."

Directors Eric Gladen and Shilo Levine will be holding Q&A sessions after both showings of Trace Amounts. Tickets to tonight's show, as well as Sunday's, are still available.