There is no credible evidence that mercury causes autism. It doesn’t matter if the mercury comes for vaccines, coal fired power plants, forest fires, or UFO tailpipe exhaust. What mercury can cause is mercury poisoning, which is nasty and horrible, but the symptoms are distinct from autism and not easily confused. Unless you’re an anti-vaccine activist who wants to pull a fast one on deadline-stressed reporters.
So if you’re a news editor or reporter in the Lone Star State, beware of a much publicized epidemiological study of coal-fired power plants and autism. Some parents of autistic children gathered in front of the Dallas federal court house last week to call attention to the study led by Raymond Palmer, PhD, associate professor of family and community medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Palmer reports that community autism prevalence is reduced by 1 percent to 2 percent with each 10 miles of distance from the pollution source. Unfortunately, Palmer’s study is yet one more example of a biased researcher cherry picking data to “prove” a hypothesis. An honest scientist looks for data to “test” the hypothesis.
This was Palmer’s second bite at the apple – his 2006 study on the same topic was widely criticized for failing to control for confounds such as urbanicity. His second attempt fell short, and you can read why here and here.
But junk science is to some people what bloated carrion is to a jackal, and fringe websites, and at least one law firm, are slavering over Palmer’s population study.
Epidemiological studies have not been kind to the anti-vaccine movement. Thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative, has been absent from scheduled childhood vaccines long enough that today’s 3-5 years old should be autism free, if a certain hypothesis was valid. Other epidemiological studies in Europe and elsewhere have failed to confirm a link between vaccines and autism.
But no matter. Vaccine hysteria pays fealty to science, but its true master is public relations. Websites such as AgeOfAutism.com regularly exhort its readers to bombard media outlets with spurious studies and unverifiable anecdotes, all aimed at getting journalists on their side. Sometimes it works. The latest call to action is aimed at four Texas media outlets who ran their own stories on reaction to the Palmer study: the Ft. Worth Star Telegram, WFAA-TV, KVTV, and KDAF.
An empty bucket, as you say in Texas, makes the most rattle, so grab your earplugs:
The media needs to hear from parents! If all these news sources receive emails from parents living everywhere in the U.S. and beyond telling them about the heavy metal levels in children with autism, pointing out the changes that occur after chelation and other bio-medical treatment, they may write more. We need to make it clear that something terrible is happening to our children but that there is hope. We can stop the exposure to toxins and we can recover these kids.
There is no credible evidence that children with autism have more heavy metals than their neurotypical peers. There are no peer reviewed studies that show chelation is an effective treatment for autism, and no good reason to suppose it would be.
By all means keep writing about autism. Tell the world about these children, their challenges, and the wonderful gifts they bring. And when reporting on the science, call a pediatric neurologist at the nearest medical college, or an immunologist, or the American Academy of Pediatrics. And when readers tell you they cured their kids with a special diet or a swim with the dolphins, show some skepticism. Purity of motive does not confer accuracy – dirt shows up on the cleanest cotton.
Something terrible happens to children with autism each time a credulous reporter repeats unverifiable and deliberately misleading stories about these kids. There is hope, but it has nothing to do with quack medical treatments and improbable conspiracy theories. Because when you get down to it, kids are kids, even ones with autism. And the best hope for any child with a disability is accommodation and acceptance.