Week of 10/24/2005

Dear EarthTalk: How do "affinity" credit cards work that donate a percent of your purchases to environmental organizations?

—Clifford Koufman, Portland, OR

"Affinity" programs were developed by credit card companies in an effort to attract more customers by associating their cards with other businesses or organizations. While consumers may be more familiar with such programs that allow them to build up discount points with retailers and car companies or frequent flier miles with airlines, non-profit organizations are increasingly getting into the game by putting their logos on credit cards and garnering a small percentage of every sale.

Consumers like such programs because they can contribute to the charitable causes of their choice through the shopping they are already doing. Charities like them because they reap donations with hardly any effort. And credit card companies benefit by gaining access and marketing to millions of potential new customers.

Plastic-wielding environmental advocates can choose credit cards benefiting the Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, Humane Society of the U.S., National Audubon Society and Wilderness Society, among many others. The credit card companies usually donate one half of one percent to the non-profit for every purchase, balance transfer or cash advance. Typically, the groups also get a donation for each new cardholder they sign up and for each renewal.

Some 55,000 card-carrying members of the Sierra Club have donated more than $1 million to the group since it started its affinity program in 1986. And the Humane Society of the U.S. reports that its decade-old affinity credit card program with MBNA has accounted for donations of hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from 37,000 account holders.

Working Assets is another affinity program worth considering for anyone who wants a portion of their consumer dollar to help environmental and other charitable causes. The company, according to its website, has generated over $47 million for nonprofits since it began in 1985, helping such organizations as Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, Oxfam America and Human Rights Watch. The company’s long distance and wireless phone services also donate to nonprofits and allow their customers to have a say as to which organizations receive donations and how much.

Consumer advocates warn, though, that racking up credit card debt is not economically responsible even if payments benefit charities. And customers should beware that affinity cards usually have higher interest rates than other cards. Also, savvy marketers have realized that pasting scenic photos of forests, mountains or wildlife on credit cards can attract more customers even without a specific donation-based affinity tie.

Websites such as CardRatings.com and CreditCardGuide.org can help potential customers see the forest for the trees when it comes to signing up for credit cards, affinity-based or otherwise.

CONTACTS: MBNA Cause-Related Credit Cards, www.mbna.com/creditcards/enviro_causes.html; Working Assets, www.workingassets.com/creditcard.cfm; CardRatings.com, www.cardratings.com; CreditCardGuide.org, www.creditcardguide.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that toxins in some common childhood vaccines cause autism, and if so should I not have my children vaccinated?

—Peter Fox, Brewer, ME

Researchers studying neurological disorders in children have zeroed in on thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative once common in vaccines, as a potential culprit in the rise of autism cases in recent years. Preservatives like thimerosal are used to prevent infection in the event that a dose is accidentally contaminated. Due to recent heightened concerns over the potential effects of mercury on child brain development, though, most vaccines for U.S. children under the age of six no longer contain thimerosal.

The issue received considerable attention following a June 2005 Rolling Stone article entitled "Deadly Immunity," by environmental lawyer and activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Kennedy claims that federal officials covered up proven scientific links between thimerosal and a 15-fold increase in autism cases since 1991. At that time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had recommended that three additional vaccines containing thimerosal be given to infants.

"More than 500,000 kids currently suffer from autism, and pediatricians diagnose more than 40,000 new cases every year," says Kennedy. "The disease was unknown until 1943, when it was identified and diagnosed among 11 children born in the months after thimerosal was first added to baby vaccines

Due to the concerns of Kennedy and thousands of like-minded parents, vaccine manufacturers have begun to phase thimerosal out of injections given to American infants. Unfortunately, though, they have continued to export their back stock of tainted vaccines to developing countries, according to Kennedy. For instance, autism was virtually unknown in China prior to the introduction of thimerosal by U.S. drug makers in 1999; today approximately 1.8 million Chinese children suffer from the disorder. Even so, industry groups complain that a direct link between autism and thimerosal has not been definitively proven.

To be safe, parents may want to ask their pediatrician if the vaccines he or she uses contain thimerosal. Some flu and tetanus shots containing thimerosal are still given to pre-teens in the U.S., although preservative-free versions are usually available upon request. The FDA provides a listing on its website of common children’s vaccines and their thimerosal content, if any, and also lists thimerosal-free alternatives.

Parents who are considering not vaccinating their children at all should know that this is a hotly debated topic—and this column is in no position to recommend a course of action. Most medical professionals argue that vaccines have saved more lives than any other kind of medical intervention and recommend their use to guard against such diseases as polio, diphtheria, rubella, hepatitis B and many others. On the other hand, critics believe that the medical benefits of vaccines are exaggerated and that negative reactions owed to toxic chemical ingredients in many vaccines have been grossly under-reported.

CONTACTS: CDC Mercury and Vaccines Page, www.cdc.gov/nip/vacsafe/concerns/thimerosal; FDA "Thimerosal in Vaccines" Information, www.fda.gov/cber/vaccine/thimerosal.htm; "Deadly Immunity," www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/_/id/7395411?rnd=1127933882328&has-player=true&version= Wikipedia Vaccines Page, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaccine.