Thimerosal exposure in infants and developmental disorders: a prospective cohort study in the United kingdom does not support a causal association

Pediatrics. 2004 Sep;114(3):577-83. doi: 10.1542/peds.2003-1176-L.


Objective: There is an established link between exposure to mercury and impaired childhood cognitive development and early motor skills. Thimerosal (also known as thiomersal), a preservative used in a number of children's vaccines, contains ethylmercury (an organic compound of mercury), and there has been concern that this exposure to mercury may be of some detriment to young children. The aim of this research was to test in a large United Kingdom population-based cohort whether there is any evidence to justify such concerns.

Methods: We used population data from a longitudinal study on childhood health and development. The study has been monitoring >14,000 children who are from the geographic area formerly known as Avon, United Kingdom, and were delivered in 1991-1992. The age at which doses of thimerosal-containing vaccines were administered was recorded, and measures of mercury exposure by 3, 4, and 6 months of age were calculated and compared with a number of measures of childhood cognitive and behavioral development covering the period from 6 to 91 months of age.

Results: Contrary to expectation, it was common for the unadjusted results to suggest a beneficial effect of thimerosal exposure. For example, exposure at 3 months was inversely associated with hyperactivity and conduct problems at 47 months; motor development at 6 months and at 30 months; difficulties with sounds at 81 months; and speech therapy, special needs, and "statementing" at 91 months. After adjustment for birth weight, gestation, gender, maternal education, parity, housing tenure, maternal smoking, breastfeeding, and ethnic origins, we found 1 result of 69 to be in the direction hypothesized-poor prosocial behavior at 47 months was associated with exposure by 3 months of age (odds ratio: 1.12; 95% confidence interval: 1.01-1.23) compared with 8 results that still supported a beneficial effect.

Conclusions: We could find no convincing evidence that early exposure to thimerosal had any deleterious effect on neurologic or psychological outcome.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / chemically induced
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / prevention & control
  • Causality
  • Cohort Studies
  • Developmental Disabilities / chemically induced*
  • Developmental Disabilities / prevention & control
  • Diet
  • Diphtheria-Tetanus Vaccine / administration & dosage
  • Diphtheria-Tetanus Vaccine / adverse effects
  • Diphtheria-Tetanus-Pertussis Vaccine / administration & dosage
  • Diphtheria-Tetanus-Pertussis Vaccine / adverse effects
  • Female
  • Fishes
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Motor Skills / drug effects
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects
  • Preservatives, Pharmaceutical / administration & dosage
  • Preservatives, Pharmaceutical / adverse effects*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Speech Disorders / chemically induced
  • Thimerosal / administration & dosage
  • Thimerosal / adverse effects*


  • Diphtheria-Tetanus Vaccine
  • Diphtheria-Tetanus-Pertussis Vaccine
  • Preservatives, Pharmaceutical
  • Thimerosal