The current issue of Mother Jones magazine caught my eye at the airport this month, with its cover story clevery titled "America's Real Criminal Element: Lead." The article outlines the case for lead -- mainly in leaded gasoline -- as the big reason for the rise, and subsequent fall, of crime. As the author, Kevin Drum, summarizes:
"Put all this together and you have an astonishing body of evidence. We now have studies at the international level, the national level, the state level, the city level, and even the individual level. Groups of children have been followed from the womb to adulthood, and higher childhood blood lead levels are consistently associated with higher adult arrest rates for violent crimes . All of these studies tell the same story: Gasoline lead is responsible for a good share of the rise and fall of violent crime over the past half century."
This goes against a lot of received wisdom, and raises questions about Rudy Giuliani's "broken window" approach to crime fighting (arrest miscreants for minor mischief and you'll nip the murder rate in the bud). It's an environmental approach to explaining social behavior, and as such it's been largely ignored despite the very strong evidence, according to Drum.
Mark Blaxill and I are familiar with the case, having sought out the leading author of the idea, Rick Nevin, who was a government consultant in the 1990s when he stumbled across the data and put together some remarkable charts. We had dinner with him last year and discussed our mutual interests in how environmental toxins, especially lead and mercury, can cause major social mayhem.
Of course, the mercury-causes-autism idea has gotten the same treatment, and worse, as the lead-causes-violence idea. In fact, you don't have to look any further than Mother Jones, and Kevin Drum, to find a case in point. Drum himself ridiculed the idea in 2011 as he blogged in the mag about an article by Chris Mooney:
"Is vaccine denial primarily a leftie/hippy/Hollywood phenomenon? There's apparently no really good data on this, but Chris Mooney rounds up what he can and concludes that the whole issue is pretty nonpolitical: 'Bottom line: There’s no evidence here to suggest that vaccine denial (and specifically, believing that childhood vaccines cause autism) is a distinctly left wing or liberal phenomenon.'" In other words, the silly idea that vaccines cause autism is embraced by idiots of all political persuasions.
Mother Jones was not always so sneering about the idea. In 2004, it ran an article titled "Toxic Tipping Point," and the subhead asked the question: "Are the CDC, the FDA, and other health agthencies covering up evidence that a mercury preservative in children's vaccines caused a rise in autism?" The answer, basically, was yes. The story was fair and full of the Simpsonwood transcripts, the Verstraeten study, and other evidence of looking the other way by federal regulators. Rita Shreffler and Mark Blaxill were quoted respectfully.
But a few years later, Mother Jones got a case of the runs -- as in, run away. An Editor's Note is now at the top of the story, and it reads:
"Editors' Note: Since this story was first published, the scientific debate it covered has been settled: Vaccines do not cause autism. Thimerosol has been removedfrom all early childhood vaccinations (except flu shots), yet the "autism epidemic" persists. A 1998 Lancet study that fueled the vaccine-autism scare has been thoroughly discredited and found to be fraudulent. Additionally, the special federal vaccine court mentioned in the article has since ruled that "the evidence was overwhelmingly contrary" to the case presented by experts and families claiming a link between vaccines and autism."
The truth, of course, is that the case against vaccines, and mercury, in the autism epidemic is stronger than ever. Words like "the scientific debate has been settled" and "discredited" and "fraudulent" are mistaken and misguided. The plain truth is it's a lot easier to be gutsy and "progressive" when it comes to blaming leaded gas for the crime rate than vaccines for autism.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.