Welcome to the new Weekly Wrap, a column highlighting issues in the news and wrapping in the week's From the Editor posts (which, for some glitchy reason, do not get picked up in Google News unless they appear in a center-column post like this one.)
When I was growing up in suburban Chicago in the 1950s, our idyllic tree-shaded street was attacked by Dutch Elm Disease. Once a tree was infected, it was too late. The city swooped in and cut the trees down, and then sprayed a sticky white oil containing a pesticide for 100 feet in every direction. Since these trees were in people's front yards, that pesticide -- DDT -- was everywhere. The only warning to residents was to make sure their car windows were rolled up at night.
Of course, now we know better -- we'd never spray DDT in people's front yards. Or do we? A successor pesticide to DDT -- safer, supposedly, but still designed to kill living things by wreaking havoc with their nervous systems -- was sprayed by plane over the weekend all over Dallas to fight West Nile Virus, and the images of people covering their lawn furniture and flowers with tarps brought back the old days in Oak Park. Just roll up your car windows and everything will be fine.
It also brought back the story Mark Blaxill and I have spent considerable time on this year -- the outbreak of tic disorders in upstate New York. The official diagnosis is the preposterous "conversion disorder" -- mass hysteria, a la Sigmund Freud -- but we have looked at environmental or infectious etiologies, possibly working as co-factors. Our most recent story focused on a plane that sprayed an insecticide called bifenthrin right next to LeRoy Junior-Senior High School, the site of the major outbreak, last September. A nearby farmer was concerned enough to make a video (Crop Dusting Video HERE) and speculate on "what part of the chemistry set" was being used on the cornfield.
We don't know whether that pesticide-spraying incident, or any other, triggered the symptoms in LeRoy, though we were surprised that several investigations costing tens of thousands of dollars never considered that possibility. But we do know that bifenthrin is in a class of pesticides called pyrethroids, and that pyrethroids at high doses can trigger some of the same symptoms -- notably muscle twitches -- that beset the LeRoy girls. We operate on the scientific maxim called Occam's Razor -- that the simplest explanation is likeliest to be correct, and that you should consider and rule it out, if possible, before going on to more exotic explanations like "conversion disorder," which we believe is a confabulation of psychiatrists who are still channeling Freud at his worst.
The trade name of the pesticide sprayed in LeRoy is called Tundra. The one in Dallas is called Duet. Both are pyrethroids. This particular compound is being spread all over the place all over the country, in and around schools and elsewhere. As West Nile spreads, so too will the use of these pesticides.
Yet there's a growing awareness this can't be good. New York State banned pesticides on school grounds last year, realizing the risk to children. The state also has a "neighbor notification law" that requires someone applying pesticide to notify their neighbors. But outside metro New York City it's optional, and Genesee County, where LeRoy is located, hasn't adopted it. Maybe they should.
To be sure, West Nile is deadly serious, just as Lyme Disease is. No one is saying we should go all holistic here and let the Hellstrom Chronicle (the movie that argued insects will inherit the Earth) unfold. But there have got to be ways to stop the threat without potentially triggering new ones. This dynamic is deeply embedded the sad and usually unwritten history of medicine and chemistry, and so often pesticides are at the heart of it. In our book The Age of Autism, Mark and I trace the first cases of autism to a new mercury compound in vaccines and pesticides -- in fact, the first three cases in the medical literature bear a clear link to pesticides; two of those three fathers were a plant pathologist and a forestry professor, and the third family built its wood house at the same time and place that organic mercury was first used as lumber preservative.
And we believe that another pesticide, lead arsenate, triggered the first wave of polio outbreaks around the turn of the 20th century, by giving the polio virus access to the nervous system where it triggered poliomyelitis. The much bigger wave following World War II tracks with the introduction of DDT.
The most dangerous words in science, it appears, are "we know better this time."
This week's "From the Editor" posts included:
DEATH WISH: Army suicide rate doubles from June to July in most heavily medicated military ever. It's way past time for an urgent review of a possible link between meds (anti-depressants, anthrax vax, Lariam, etc.) and deaths.
DUST-UP: West Nile Virus outbreak around Dallas prompts pesticide spraying from planes, just as school gets started. Watch out for strange new neurological disorders among kids chalked up to mass psychogenic illness!
NORMATIVITY: Recently I was forwarded an analysis of the Autism Omnibus cases, written by Anna Kirkland in a journal called Social Studies of Science. If “social studies” reminds you of junior high, so will this piece, which manages to blend weak legal analysis, a glancing knowledge of science and the flimsy tenets of social constructionism. It would be tempting to quote at length – I’ll just say, when you see the word “normative,” step away from your laptop. ("Moreover, as Gary Edmond notes, ‘law–science knowledge ... is a contingent artifact of specific law–science interactions drawing on and reinforcing a range of normative behaviors, commitments, and relations’. ")
But I do want to quote this particular bit of prose:
“The puzzle this raises for studies of credibility is how, by ruling against a relatively weak opponent, a vast and powerful entity such as the US federal government may end up producing both greater and weaker credibility. This bi-directional co-production occurs because multiple credibility zones pre-exist the conflict and persist after the attempt at closure (Jasanoff, 2004).”
Ah yes, these pesky multiple pre-existing credibility zones that lead to bi-direction co-production. Translation, I think: there are people who believe vaccines cause autism, and people who don’t, and you ain’t gonna be convincin’ nobody of nuthin, no matter what some fancy judge is sayin! Ain’t that right, Bertha?
Yes, that’s right. This is excruciatingly normative palaver by social scientists, and it covers up the fact that the writer really has nothing much to say, except to endorse the view of the special masters and fling pity on the poor misguided parents.
What’s missing, other than a sophisticated understanding of this issue, is any mention of Hannah Poling, Bailey Banks, or the “unanswered questions” posed by investigators who found a striking number of cases of autism mysteriously popping up among children given vaccine damage awards – bi-directional co-production, you might call it.
Nor is there mention of the $2 billion shelled out by the contrary and adversarial vaccine injury compensation program. In Kirkland's piece, they come across as nice people trying to give deluded parents a fair shake they'd never get in a real-live court of law.
Perhaps the most idiotic point in the paper is Kirkland’s supposed insight that after they were defeated in court, autism parents began attacking the court system:
“Instead of continuing to fight on the scientific merits of the theory, critics – the losing families and the vaccine critics who support them – pivoted instead to a procedural justice argument against the vaccine compensation program.”
Well, I think they, and we, are continuing to fight on the scientific merits of the theory. But pointing out the flawed nature of the vaccine justice system is hardly a “pivot.” Suppression of the truth, whether in a court or in insipid ninth-grade-level social studies reports like this, is the point. --d.o--
TV SLEAZE: From a strictly financial point of view, the best thing that can happen to this country's cable companies and networks is for a new and widely presecribed drug to start killing and maiming lots and lots of people very, very slowly. And then for the government to belatedly figure that out, and for the victims and their survivors to have a really strong legal case against the drug manufacturer.
The ad revenue would be fabulous! First you get the overhyping and overprescrbing of the new drug (I'm thinking Peggy Fleming whining about her ankle being all achy and how only Vioxx could help. Instead it killed tens of thousands who never needed it.) Then you get the ads from all the law firms telling you if you've ever taken the drug and dropped dead, you should call them right away (Vioxx, every diet pill ever invented, etc). Sometimes if you're lucky (you being the aforementioned TV network), the government will force a manufacturer to revise its excessive ad claims (I'm thinking of Yaz, the birth control pill) and replay the ad. Then you get the ad that was false, the ad that tidies up after the false ad, and the revenue from all the people who got sick or died believing the information in the false ad.
And sometimes you get both the ad for the product and the ad for the lawyers running at the same time -- I'm thinking Pradaxa, where a grinning real doctor over-enunciates "Pradaxa is progggg-ress," and there's another ad running now that says if you've been harmed by Pradaxa, call this number. The Pradaxa doc even tries to lure viewers away from an older drug (which, by definition, has a longer and in this case stronger safety record), even as new studies show, as they so often do, unrecognized issues with Pradaxa that only pop up during the benignly named post-marketing surveillance (read: people keeling over and bleeding to death).
Does anyone at the network/cable office ever think, "Wait, we're making money from the ad shilling this drug, and making money correcting the ad shilling the drug, and making money from the lawyers looking for clients harmed by the drug. Maybe we shouldn't be running ads for things that can kill you in the first place, things that our viewers are in no position to evaluate and their doctor can give them if they really need it?"
Doubtful. The USA and New Zealand, I believe, are still the only two developed countries that allow such direct-to-consumer ads, and the gravy train has left the station. But more people are starting to notice, and to realize that propping up the media with Big Pharma Bucks -- just like allowing the highest spenders to control campaign messaging on TV -- is hazardous to our health.
In the current issue of Washington Monthly, a magazine wise to the ways of lobbyists and money-grubbing mega-businesses, Charles Peters writes a short item titled "Department of Missed Connections":
"Have you noticed how many of the commercials on cable television are by manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and medical devices? And aren't you just a bit troubled by how many of the other commercials are from law firms injured or sickened by these products?"
It seems almost pointless to moralize here, but this is exactly why these kind of ads don't appear in other countries. And it creates a whopping conflict of interest in the reporting choices made by these same outlets -- are you going to bite the hand that pops the pills that pay the bills? Merck makes and heavily advertises the shingles vaccine -- would you be inclined to double-check on that whole MMR-autism thing (which Merck also makes) if you worked for CNN or ABC (Anderson or George)? For that matter, how about the strong evidence linking the rise in shingles to the chickenpox vaccine, also made by Merck?
Similarly, the airwaves are now flooded with Super-Pac ads in the wake of Citizens United. Whatever one thinks of that ruling, the networks are again the beneficiaries, and burdened by another massive conflict. In the current Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson notes that for the networks and cable companies, "the profit motive stifles critical coverage of top donors and meaningful reforms, such as public financing of elections. 'Broadcasters have an incentive not to see the system changed,'" one critic tells Dickinson.
So when it comes to a couple of the worst problems facing our country at the moment -- rampant health-care costs fueled by excessive and expensive medications, and the skewing of the political agenda by special interests -- the picture of what's really happening is pretty clear. You might even say it's Hi-Def.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.