I've just finished reading Autism's False Prophets by Paul Offit (more on the book in a later post). Offit showcases several parents of children with autism who do not believe vaccines had anything to do with it. One such parent is Kathleen Seidel, whom Offit says "has been a constant, unshakable thorn in the side of those who have hijacked the discussions about the cause of autism."
"All autism is caused by mercury poisoning?" she is quoted as saying. "Excuse me. Did it ever occur to [vaccine mercury critics] that someone might object to having their family members labeled as inherently toxic?"
Well, I don't think every case of autism is caused by mercury poisoning -- just that mercury, as a matter of simple fact, is implicated in the rise of autism. It's a free country and a reasonable public health debate, whether Paul Offit and Kathleen Seidel object or not (and boy, do they). After reading Offit's book, I will say this: I have a hunch why Seidel reacts to this so personally and so vociferously.
First it's worth restating where I'm coming from. My research on the earliest cases of autism -- the 11 children described in Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact, written in 1943 by child psychiatrist Leo Kanner at Johns Hopkins -- has convinced me that autism was a new disorder that was triggered by the commercialization of ethyl mercury, in the form of thimerosal, starting about 1930. All of Kanner's kids were born in the 1930s, and Kanner -- the dean of child psychiatry, the one man who had seen it all -- described autism as "markedly and uniquely different from anything reported so far."
And how was ethyl mercury commercialized? In fungicides and in medical products. I've written at length (see Mercury Rising on our home page) about a link in those early cases to ethyl mercury fungicides. Those fungicides were banned long ago for good reason, but thimerosal continues to be used -- inexplicably and unforgivably -- in vaccines and in many different eye-care solutions. To see just how many, check out the FDA's list HERE.
Offit describes Seidel moving to New York City "where she met her future husband, a guitar player. She worked for Project Orbis, a flying ophthalmalogic surgical teaching hospital. …"
Whoa. A flying ophthalmalogic surgical teaching hospital? I suppose it's possible she just booked their flights and never set foot on the plane, but assuming she was part of the team, I strongly suspect Kathleen Seidel was exposed to thimerosal occupationally. Just for example, a study from 1970 is titled "Bacterial cultures from donor corneas. A study of eyes treated with thimerosal solutions prior to corneal grafting." Sounds like an opthalmalogic surgical procedure to me. And in the closed space of an airplane, you have to think anything toxic would circulate and re-circulate almost endlessly. We all know how easy it is to catch a cold on a plane; how much mercury can you catch in an airborne surgical eye hospital that exposes you to thimerosal?
Laugh me off if you want, but I have spent a lot of time looking for plausible links between parents' occupations and autism in their children, and I know them when I see them. If Kathleen Seidel chooses to talk about her occupational background with Paul Offit, and I pay $25 to read about it, I get to connect dots just like any other observer. Why should I write about everyone else and leave her out?
Nor am I the only one to think occupational chemical exposure is relevant in parents of children with autism. In the 1970s Dr. Mary Coleman, a Georgetown University researcher, found that while only 1 percent of all occupations involved exposure to chemicals, about 1 in 4 parents of autistic children had such exposures. She said that was worth pursuing -- though no one did, and the idea that autism was genetic soon came to the fore. Kathleen Seidel would certainly make the cut as someone in that statistically significant group of autism parents with an occupational exposure to chemicals.
The overlooked, uncomfortable but undeniable truth is that chemicals are implicated in autism from the beginning. Among those first 11 cases, the very first child to show up at Johns Hopkins in 1935 was the son of a chemist at the patent office. (Seidel's own father, Offit says, was a chemical engineer. More background toxicity?) Then came the plant pathologist, the mining engineer, the forestry professor, the doctor ... oh, never mind. The gene-iacs aren't listening anyway.
What I find so interesting is the vehemence with which Seidel attacks the thimerosal idea and its advocates. It's not just that those who disagree are wrong, it's more personal than that -- "Did it ever occur to you that someone might object to having their family member labeled as inherently toxic?" Well, they might object, but that doesn't have any bearing on the truth.
Nor is anyone with autism actually harmed or damaged in Seidel's universe; they're just differently wired in ways that must be honored (her Web site is neurodiversity.com). I'm for honoring everyone, but I'm also for facing the fact that autism is an environmentally triggered disorder that can be understood, prevented, and treated. People like Kathleen Seidel keep this from happening.
Seidel is smart and informed; she must know by now that she was working with ethyl mercury. If so, she clearly has concluded it did not cause her child to develop autism (she might reasonably have been expected, though, to share that exposure with the neurodiverse fan base who cling to her and to the genes-made-me-unique gestalt). No wonder people who keep raising this simple idea of ethyl mercury -- a stupid molecule -- causing autism are simply intolerable to her. No wonder she hates that I keep looking for chemical exposures in early cases as the key to the epidemic. ("How many more of Dr. Kanner’s patients do you have in your sights?" she asked me three years ago. The answer is, all of them, and all of their toxic exposures, and I'm getting there.)
No wonder she hates David Kirby's Evidence of Harm: "I thought maybe this guy is just really naïve. … But does he realize there are a whole lot of us out there … who are kind of offended at the willingness of certain people to go on beating this drum saying that all autistics are poisoned?"
I'm sure she's more than kind of offended. It must be awful to keep hearing that.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.