I was interested in the recent study that linked autism and schizophrenia with pollution. From Fox News:
Exposure to environmental pollution may cause brain changes that make people more vulnerable to developing autism or schizophrenia, according to a new study published in Environmental Heath Perspectives. ... Now, researchers from the University of Rochester have uncovered the biological mechanism that may explain how pollution can put people at a higher risk for both autism and schizophrenia. . . . . After four hours of pollution exposure during two four-day periods, mice exposed to pollution experienced marked changes in behavior compared to mice living in an environment with filtered air. . . "That kind of air pollution produces inflammation, it is going to produce inflammation peripherally and in the brain as well. And when you produce inflammation in the brain, you can kill cells there," Cory-Slechta said.
While the pollution in question in this study is the type generated by traffic, it's worth pointing out that the first to link general pollution to the rise of schizophrenia was apparently ... us! In our 2010 book, The Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and Man-made Epidemic, we looked at the staggering increase in schizophrenia, particularly in England, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. A lot of the high and mighty in England thought it was just ... better diagnosis. (Sound familiar?)
Mark Blaxill and I were thoroughly persuaded, however, by the painstaking research of E. Fuller Torrey, whose book The Invisible Plague charted the rise of mental illness. (And he's no crackpot -- he was the featured interviewee on 60 Minutes' recent report on mental illness and mass violence.) Torrey was more focused on the fact that schizophrenia did increase, rather than why; he was busy fighting off the mental-health version of the skeptics we all face who like to say, Epidemic? What Epidemic? He was kind enough to let us review and cite his voluminous research, and let me tell you, it is completely convincing. Strange as it seems, mental illness of the kind we deal with these days really did go from a standing start to an epidemic.
In our chapter called Pollution, we focused on schizophrenia, "The Industrial Revolution offers what is perhaps the first case study in how polluting the environment may have created conditions that give rise to new disease." We noted: "Starting around 1750, more and more peopole simply went mad in England and Wales. Statistics in E. Fuller Torrey, M.D., and Judy Miller's book The Invisible Plague, on 'Insane Persons in Psychiatric Hospitals, Workhouses and Under Care' tell the story. In 1807 the total was 5,500; by 1870 it was 54,713 -- a staggering tenfold increase over the 1807 figure. Yet historical references to insanity are few and far between before the middle of the 1700s. The meager references to madness that do exist before this time don't usuallly reference any kind of early adult onset, a characteristic that often accompanied this emerging form of mental illness."
What was happening? Most likely, some of the elements in coal -- especially lead, but also mercury and arsenic --could trigger brain disease in susceptible individuals (or just about anybody breathing that toxic stuff day after day without even the benefit of smokestacks dispersing it). Certainly, the idea that lead is implicated in schizophrenia is not new. Opler and colleagues proposed in 2004 in Environmental Health Perspectives that prenatal lead exposure might be a risk factor for later-onset schizophrenia, and that the continued use of leaded gasoline outside the developed world is a concern.
But linking the historic rise of schizophrenia to general pollution -- that appears to be our idea, one that we developed with data, charts, and logical argument four years ago. I bring this up now not to crow (although establishing priority in the publication of ideas is important for all kinds of reasons), but to suggest that those of us who link environmental exposures to modern illnesses are not so crackpot after all. We are just a little ahead of the game.