By Dan Olmsted, WASHINGTON, Aug. 30
In my first column for Rescue Post, I wrote about the irony that America sends mercury-laced childhood vaccines to China, and China sends lead-toxic toys to the USA -- an "instant karma" lesson that heavy metals are unsafe for children anywhere on the planet.
This week I was reminded that China is zapping us with mercury, too -- and it could be a key factor in the relentless rise in autism rates here. On Sunday, The New York Times began a series on pollution in China and how it is devastating that country even as it fuels an unprecedented "economic miracle." The fuel, literally, is coal, and mercury is a toxic byproduct when it's burned.
How much coal? Oh, brother.
"China has entered the most robust stage of its industrial revolution," the paper says. "In 2005 alone, China added 66 gigawatts of electricity to its power grid, about as much power as Britain generates in a year. Last year, it added an additional 102 gigawatts, as much as France. That increase has come almost entirely from small-and-medium size coal-fired power plants that were built quickly and inexpensively."
So you don't have to summon "the butterfly effect" -- the idea that small changes somewhere on Earth can trigger huge changes elsewhere -- to realize we're in trouble, too.
"China's problem has become the world's problem," the paper says. "Much of the particulate pollution over Los Angeles originates in China."
California, of course, is ground zero as we watch autism rates keep rising -- even after mercury was "removed" from childhood vaccines starting in 1999 (the situation is much more complicated than that, since more and more pregnant women and younger and younger kids are getting mercury-preserved flu shots). So if you believe as I do that autism is fundamentally an environmental illness that whacks a subgroup of susceptible kids, mercury from China -- or anyplace else -- is every bit as important as mercury from vaccines.
Recent studies have shown why. Raymond Palmer and colleagues at the University of Texas found the autism rate was higher in Texas counties with more mercury exposure from toxic industrial releases. In another study, researchers found children living in areas with the highest level of mercury pollution in the San Francisco Bay area were roughly twice as likely to have autism.
So: Much of the particulate pollution over LA comes from China's coal-spewing power plants; up the coast in San Francisco, kids are twice as likely to have autism in mercury-pollution hotspots. And China keeps pumping out more and more coal/mercury.
Aren't the implications pretty chilling? If mercury is related to autism, wouldn't you expect the autism rate in California to keep rising?
As I've studied the subject over the past couple of years, I've come across a number of never-vaccinated kids with the disorder. But often, another link to mercury immediately presents itself. The most notable instance: I reported that fewer Amish kids were vaccinated, fewer seem to have autism, and the few that I did find had in fact been vaccinated. (As critics have pointed out, this is anecdotal and scientifically unconvincing -- which is why the never-performed study of never-vaccinated kids needs to be done).
Shortly after that article appeared, a Virginia pediatrician and geneticist, Dr. Lawrence Leichtman, posted a note saying he had six fully autistic, regressive, never-vaccinated Old Order Amish kids as patients. That was certainly in contrast to what I had found up to that point, so I called him up.
Leichtman told me that of his six unvaccinated Amish children and adolescents, three were from Pennsylvania Dutch country, two from Iowa and one from Texas. "By the way," he volunteered, "four of these six kids all have elevated mercury. The only two that don't, one of them is from Texas and one is from Iowa. But all of the people in Pennsylvania and one of the people in Iowa have elevated mercury."
Were the mercury levels significantly higher? I asked. "Oh yes," he responded.
What did he think was going on?
"The people in Pennsylvania, I've actually tracked back on them," Leichtman said. "There's definitely a plume from one of the coal-fired power plants (from western Pennsylvania) that just goes right over them. And the one in Iowa, it's a little less obvious because actually he's in the Amana Colonies, but I have seen reports of the area around Amana having elevated levels of mercury in the environment."
Leichttman said northern states "get most of the prevailing wind that comes across the Pacific. You get that trans-Pacific flow which is all Chinese mercury. We're getting a load of Chinese mercury, as far as I can tell."
In fact, Leichtman believes the damage to children is coming from environmental mercury, not the mercury in vaccines. He said he can detect elevated mercury levels in about half his 500 autism patients. "Environmental mercury is horrible," he said, "and I think that's where it's coming from. To me, people with autism are the canaries in the coal mine. A lot of them are reflecting the damage from all of that."
In my column, I pointed out that the Pittsburgh Post had just reported Pennsylvania has four of the nation's 10 "dirtiest power plants." So there's plenty of coal from American power plants putting out mercury as well, and if the industry has its way, there will be many, many more over the next few decades.
My own research also pointed a finger at mercury in the environment. In my UPI Age of Autism column "Mercury Link to Case 2," I found a plausible connection between mercury fungicides and the first three autism cases reported at Johns Hopkins in the 1930s. From the start, in other words, mercury has been implicated in autism via more than one vector, and nothing about that has changed in the decades since.
More and more people are starting to make this broader case.
In "Throwing Children Into Oncoming Traffic: The Truth About Autism," Dr. Kenneth Stoller and Anne McElroy Daschel (two relentless and gutsy enviro/bio advocates), write that "mercury is the deadliest non-radioactive element on Earth, and thousands of tons are spewed into the environment every year. With each coal-fire power plant that comes on line we are one step closer to exterminating human life on this planet. However, mercury is politically protected because of its connection with the fossil-fuel industry, dentistry (amalgam dental filings), and vaccines."
And they make another important point -- that toxic damage to humans is the internal equivalent to what's happening in the external environment: "It's not just about autism, it's about a level of mercury pollution that could threaten human life on this planet. We may have less time to solve this problem than we have to stop global warming, although the two overlap to a great extent."
In his terrific new book "Changing the Course of Autism," Dr. Bryan Jepson writes: "How long will it take for us to pay attention to mercury and its effects on developing brains in low-level chronic exposures? Mercury is known to be more neurotoxic than lead, and its presence in the environment is on the rise. I'm afraid that we are inadvertently using our children as our 'canary in the coal mine.'"
There's that "coal mine" metaphor again. That may not be a metaphor at all.
Dan Olmsted wrote The Age of Autism column for United Press International and is now an independent journalist based in Washington, focusing on autism and related issues. He can be reached at Olmsted.firstname.lastname@example.org.