Managing Editor's Note: This post ran last spring. We thought we'd run it again in light of the study from Cornell on precipitation and autism and David Kirby's latest piece on Huffington Post titled "Autism, Rain and Mercury" HERE.
By Mark Blaxill
It was March 31, 1981, less than three months into Ronald Reagan's first term. The nation had just learned that a mentally ill gunman had shot the president and the bureaucrats back at the White House were trying to figure out what to say and do next. That was when Alexander Haig, the Secretary of State at the time, decided that the most important thing he could do was to reassure the American people. In a famous press briefing, Haig told reporters "as of now, I am in control here, in the White House." Although he would later run for President himself, Haig's delusion of control was brief. (He was also wrong, constitutionally speaking, but that mattered little). Within a couple of hours the Vice President had landed back in Washington DC and any need that some panicked soul might have felt for reassurance from Secretary Haig had quickly passed.
It's a powerful impulse, the need for a sense of control in our lives. Perhaps the only more powerful impulse is the desire among political leaders like Haig to respond to that need by providing reassurances that, indeed, "everything is under control here in Washington. Don't worry your little heads, you members of the public, that anything is amiss or out of order. Just leave all the important decisions to us."
I sometimes wonder what possesses so many in our medical and scientific leadership these days. Why is it so hard to face the inconvenient reality of the autism epidemic? The numbers scream out that we are in the midst of a national emergency in childhood health; hundreds of thousands of developing brains have been damaged by some form of environmental exposure; families all over the country are in crisis; and yet the official line from the CDC and other medical leaders comes straight out of the Alexander Haig playbook. Everything's under control here: we're just doing a better job diagnosing; the criteria have changed and isn't it wonderful that we're helping more children now; they were simply overlooked before by earlier officials who weren't as much in control of the situation as we are now; oh, and don't worry your little heads about our vaccine suppliers, everything they're doing is perfectly safe. If you don't believe us, we've got a doctor in a nice white coat who will be on the air right after the Vytorin commercial and he'll tell you all about it.
Yeah, that's the ticket.
The problem, of course, is that everything's not all right. And it's not all right in the kind of perfect storm of out-of-control incompetence that makes Haig-style bureaucrats squirm.
- The CDC doesn't want to admit that the numbers have gone up by tenfold. Why? Because that would mean they'd been negligent in performing one of their most important jobs, the surveillance of American disease. "Asleep at the switch while the greatest crisis in a generation emerged on our watch? That can't be the story; let's just pretend it's always been there, we were simply the first to call attention to the problem and never missed a thing!"
- The medical establishment doesn't want to admit that hundreds of thousands of children are sick. Why? Well in part because quite a number of researchers were eager to make autism one of the great victories of the Age of the Genome. But mostly because no one has the foggiest idea of what is really behind the Age of Autism. "Clueless about the cause of disease when we're supposed to be the heroes who have all the answers? That can't be. Well let's just tell everyone that we're slowly unraveling the mysteries of autism. That way we might be able to get someone to expand our budgets, which will be good as long as they don't try to tell us how to spend it or put any pressure on us for results. Hey, that autism thing is beginning to sound like quite an opportunity!"
- The vaccine development complex doesn't want anyone to consider, not even for a moment, that the largest uncontrolled experiment in the history of childhood health just might have had even a small role to play in causing the problem. "Vaccines cause autism? Oh you irresponsible public you! How could you think such a thing? (Shhh, maybe there's one teensy weensy case out there. Nothing major, just a rare and GENETIC mitochondrial disorder. Oh, well maybe it wasn't any genes that we could find, but it was certainly rare. Oh, the next case in line looks just like the first? Uh oh, what do we do now?)."
You get the idea.
Unfortunately, as with all cases of large scale denial, the problem is going to have to get a whole lot worse before it starts to get better. And tomorrow, down in San Antonio, researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHSC)--in another bit of news that will make the public health bureaucracy want to go run and hide--will announce the release of yet another study connecting mercury exposure and autism. This time, the study reports results that link a higher risk of autism to higher levels of mercury in the air.
Just so you understand how new and disturbing this idea is, I'll say it again: higher levels of mercury in the air. Not methyl mercury in fish samples from a Manhattan sushi bar; not inorganic mercury bound up in silver fillings from a dentists office (they're completely safe too, by the way); and no, not even the infamous thimerosal (that gentlest of bacteriostats) that's still lurking in those remarkably ineffective flu shots.
Mercury in the air!
To be more precise, UTHSC scientist Ray Palmer has found in two consecutive studies that increased exposure to mercury emissions from industrial sources, most notably coal smoke from electric power plants, is significantly associated with increased autism risk. In their first study published back in 2005, Palmer et al found that higher emissions of mercury in a school district, after taking into account all sorts of other factors that might affect autism rates, appeared to increase autism risk. In the second study coming out tomorrow, Palmer et al have refined their initial analysis. Their latest analysis shows that the closer a family lived to a major mercury emissions source, the higher the autism rate: for every 10 miles closer your family lived to a mercury source, your risk of autism went up between 1 and 2 percent.
The first impulse of the Haigian bureaucrat of course, is to deny the possibility of the loss of control. Surely, this is a rogue study, a John Hinckley kind of insanity masquerading as science (maybe now he's trying to impress Jenny McCarthy!). But unfortunately for the denial impulse, Palmer et al appear to be on to something quite important. Not only have they replicated their own findings on mercury in the Texas air, they're also replicating a similar finding from researchers in California. In 2006, a group of researchers (who certainly couldn't be considered rogue analysts, since the proponents of the first failed theory of autism epidemic denial, Lisa Croen and Judy Grether, were among them) looked at levels of hazardous air pollutants in California. They found roughly double the autism risk in the areas with the highest concentration of mercury in the air.
That's right. Living in the areas with the highest levels of mercury in the air in California doubled the risk of autism.
What' s so important to recognize about these studies is that they have little to do with all the normal routes of mercury exposure that most scientists are used to talking about: it's not about fish, fillings or vaccines, the compound and exposure pathways that scientists have reduced to reasonably well defined theories of exposure and biology that they can test in their labs. Instead, they're mercury exposures that very few people are measuring coming at us in forms that people don't yet know how to think about. To the extent that some scientists are studying this form of the problem, and there is actually a great deal of science about mercury emissions, transport and deposition in the environment, they study the emission points and human exposure pathways separately. Their human exposure models mostly focus on methyl mercury, which appears not to be at issue here. But their emissions models consider all different kinds of mercury in the air: elemental mercury vapor, reactive gaseous mercury compounds, or simply mercury dust (what scientists call fine particulate matter). And because they don't know what form it's in, scientists can't really tell us what exposure pathway we should be worried about. Are we breathing it or drinking it? Is it in the aquatic food chain or in the dust that falls on our cars? Unfortunately right now, the end-to-end modeling of the whole problem is not yet under control. Alexander Haig would not be pleased.
But there are some new ideas that can emerge when one starts thinking about this new inconvenient problem. One thing I'd suggest is that when we think about mercury exposure we ought to be thinking a lot more about things like rain. Most models that consider how mercury reaches the ground presume that mercury from the upper atmosphere is deposited on the earth's surface along with precipitation. So rain would be a transport vehicle for mercury. That raises an interesting connection. A couple of prominent (and much ridiculed by parents) studies have spun elaborate theories about autism risk: that autism is caused by watching television too much or by excessive prenatal stress by pregnant mothers who are worried during hurricanes or storms. Both of these studies drew their conclusions about risk factors based on a simple proxy measure for TV watching or stress in pregnancy: precipitation. So instead of assuming that kids watch more television when it rains and that therefore television causes autism or that pregnant mothers are under greater stress during hurricanes and storms, stress levels that are measured of course by the amount of rain, perhaps we should consider a simpler explanation.
It's the rain stupid.
As Palmer et al point out, there's a lot of reason to be concerned about rising levels of mercury in the air from all sources. Most airborne mercury comes from coal burning, and we've seen huge increases in coal consumption during just the last few decades based on the explosive, and largely coal-fueled, growth of the Chinese economy. Mercury can come from local point sources like the ones analyzed in the Texas studies, or it can come down the from distant sources like Chinese power plants that launch the mercury into the upper atmosphere where winds carry it across oceans and around the globe and then it comes down to the ground level with precipitation.
So for those of you who are worried about the effects of too much carbon dioxide in the air, maybe you should worry just as much about another by-product of all that coal burning.
Mercury is in the air. No one's in control. It's time we faced that reality and started doing something about.
Mark Blaxill is editor-at-large of the Age of Autism and a Director of SafeMinds.