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.
I can't tell you the care and caution we put into crafting that chapter, because -- compared to the other theories we advanced in the book -- we felt this was the most speculative, and the riskiest. We even said so: "Up until now, we've focusd on the direct connection between the medical adinistration of mercury and specific diseases. In this chapter we'll take a more speculative approach, looking at the modern emergence of a wide range of chronic disorders, while also placing a special emphasis on schizophrenia.
"And while schizophrenia is our leading model, there are other conditions, newly discovered in the wake of Europe's Industrial Revolution, that we also believe are part and parcel of the effects of pollution. ... Beyond schizophrenia, disease scenarios we consider include conditions ranging from juvenile arthritis and attention deficit disorder to genetic mutations like Down and fragile X syndrome. We offer this longer list of scenarios as part of a broader theory about the relationship between man's industrial activities and the rise of a whole new class of diseases. In the context of the rise of autism, these scenarios are important to consider as we investigate the role of man-made chemicals and toxins in our environment."
My point here is that the discoveries of our book and blog seem to be gaining, rather than losing, credibility:
-- It looks like we may be right about pollution in the rise of schizophrenia as a modern illness.
-- Our arguments about the rise of the worst form of syphilis -- that it was caused by the new kind of mercury used to treat it -- and the rise of hysteria -- that it was caused by young women treating syphilitic fathers with mercury -- have not been seriously challenged (or challenged at all). And those are some pretty nifty ideas.
-- Ditto with the amazing background of mercury exposure in the first 11 families of autistic children described in the first medical paper on autism, in 1943.
-- And a lot more where that came from!
All of it -- all of it -- leads us inexorably to the idea that the Age of Autism is man-made, and that toxins like mercury, including the mercury in vaccines, triggered it. And that the blindness and belligerence of the mainstream medical, scientific, manufacturing, and journalistic establishment perpetuate it by denying the epidemic and its environmental triggers.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.