By Norm Roberts
There are several things we can agree on. Coal is nasty. Studies correlating incidence of autism and proximity to coal fired power plants shouldn’t be discounted. We need to clean up those plants. Coal’s likely role in autism is only one reason.
But I wouldn’t like to see us get caught up blaming coal for the pandemic. For one thing coal is a convenient villain, one that can be used to obfuscate the role played by other, more important factors that are politically off limits. We could be set back decades trying to eradicate autism by banning coal only to eventually discover what is obvious now. Coal can’t be more than a minor player. We’ve already lost twenty years trying to make genetics the culprit. Let’s not spend another twenty chasing another false lead.
Coal has been around a long time. It has been the principle energy source for the industrial revolution since England ran out of trees to make coke. At the turn of the twentieth century the air in central England was black with soot. It was an awful place to live. Coal was the main source of winter heating in my home town until we got a gas pipeline in the 1950s. The post buildings at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky were heated with coal when I was there in 1965. I remember a snow storm that winter. When the snow melted the automobiles were all red with coal dust.
No autism to speak of though. Something happened around 1990 to precipitate a dramatic increase in that. Some major source or sources of environmental insult either first appeared or became much more prevalent and caused a lot more autism. Whatever it was it happened all over the world. Suggesting that coal is the answer just feeds the unhelpful dodge that autism has been here all along, and in numbers that haven’t really gone up. Of course the numbers have gone up and at a terrifying rate. Let me say it again. Something new came along twenty years ago and it wasn’t coal.
I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t look further into coal. We should. We should ask all the obvious questions and not accept dismissive or speculative answers to any of them. What changed? If coal is a contributing factor, what’s changed in coal? Why didn’t we see autism a hundred years ago? Do the smoke stack scrubbers we installed have something to do with it? They are new. So are catalytic converters on automobiles, and guess what, living near a freeway also correlates with autism incidence. So do changes in the childhood vaccination schedule. Ask the questions? Sure. Something’s causing this, but let’s not spent more years and more millions chasing our tails.
We need to understand this disease. We need to understand its nature, what environmental insults cause it, how they cause it, and how our children are exposed to them. For many years the medical and scientific communities have been trying to explain away this tragedy. They blamed it on poor mothering, then genes. They continue to define it in purely behavioral terms in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is biological in nature. They have used one lame excuse after another for not looking into related morbidities. For years they ignored digestive, immune response, muscular, and sensory issues, all things parents have been telling them about, pleading with them about only to be dismissed as distraught.
Norm Roberts is a retired business analyst living in Plano, Texas. His 9 year old grandson has autism.