Connecting the Dots Between Autism and Your Health

Whether it’s pesticides in grain, hormones in dairy or fracking chemicals seeping into water supplies, we are vulnerable to serious health risks.

The state of science on all industrial outputs that contribute to health risk is nowhere near what it needs to be. The reason? Whether it’s fracking or GMOs or other novel toxins, government regulators tend to rely for safety studies on the very industries that proffer these toxins. And that includes medical industry products, aka drugs, treatments, and perhaps even vaccinations.

The Scientific Void

Many toxic ingredients are never studied at all. Nor does science look into what specifically happens when people are exposed to many different chemicals over time. A new study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health finds increased incidence of autism in babies born to families exposed to high air pollution (as measured by the EPA).

This study is the tip of the iceberg, revealing that what we don’t know about toxic exposures is hurting our children. This research published in the June 2013 edition of Environmental Health Perspectives is an important link in an emerging chain of scientific evidence. But it’s just a beginning. Children with autism and their families deal with this severe health challenge in a near void of science. And they are not the only ones who can’t get their minds around the range of pollutant contributing to health issues. 
Most diseases, like cancer, come on gradually and imperceptibly over time, making it impossible to connect a toxic exposure to a specific symptom or disease. This makes it harder for most people to fully grasp how toxins undermine health across the board. Autism is clearly the exception. In autism, often parents report health problems springing up immediately following vaccination. 

Unfortunately, science isn’t very far ahead of the average person. When a toxin, heavy metal or endocrine disrupter interacts with a baby’s biology in utero, infancy, or early childhood, the effects can be more far-reaching and ongoing than what an exposed adult might experience. Just as a plant seedling sends out a tiny tendril that evolves into stem, root, leaf and flower, so do tiny humans grow and specialize their parts, systems and functions most intensively in the earliest years of life. At least from conception, outside outputs can and do regularly enter and intervene in that biological evolution. 

Whether it’s pesticides in grain, hormones in dairy, fracking chemicals seeping into water supplies, volatile organic compounds in the air, endocrine disrupters in personal care, or as the Harvard researchers found diesel, particulate matter and mercury from nearby traffic, a range of material outputs skew or derail the child’s delicate growth process.

Nesting in the Environment

Although we Americans like to think of ourselves as self-determining individuals, we are more like those Russian dolls, nested within a chain of being. A child’s biological exposures begin when she is nested in her mother’s womb. When the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that children were born “pre-polluted” with over 200 industrial chemicals, the unstated obvious is how these chemicals got there. The baby wasn’t cooking with Teflon or ingesting pesticides or grasping BPA saturated store receipts. The person exposed to a whole range of persistent and accumulating chemicals was Mom.

And these chemicals were downloaded into Baby in utero. Even the quality of Mom’s eggs and Dad’s sperm, the magic ingredients that made Baby, are not immune to industrial outputs. That doesn’t necessarily make Mom and Dad the culprits for Baby’s exposure. Because Mom and Dad are nested within the larger environment, where these chemicals, many of them unavoidable, circulate. The problem is that exposure to these infinitesimal outputs is constant and cumulative, while science is singular and slow. It studies one thing at a time.

Singular Science

Over two decades ago, the vaccine schedule expanded and autism rates began to climb. With autism now affecting one child in 50, how much can science tell us about all of its contributors? 

Conventional medical science’s chief response to autism concerns has been to insist on one point: Vaccinations do not cause autism. What does contribute remains something of a mystery to the medical establishment. But the search for the smoking gun— the single cause (whether gene or substance) that can be treated with another drug— has been unfruitful. Even this important Harvard Public Health finding can only point to several significant contributors out of a whole world of toxins. By singling out diesel and mercury, the study advances science. But it’s just a beginning. 

Currently, there is no known drug for traffic exposure. And the only way to address the risks of mercury exposure is mercury avoidance. Fortunately, as of now, most shots in the U.S. (apart from flu shots) are nearly mercury-free. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for vaccines distributed in developing countries.

It took years of advocacy to get thimerosal, the mercury-containing preservative, out of most U.S. shots. As a result, many children were exposed to mercury from vaccinations. At the outset, even established medical groups contended that the amount was too slight to affect a newborn, even though in receiving the shots, by the age of two, the average baby received 237 micrograms of mercury from vaccines alone, which is 2,370 times the amount (.1 mcg/kg. per day) deemed safe by the EPA. Today many other vaccine ingredients are presumed to be sacrosanct singly and in combination. 

If ever a direct link to an ingredient were found, it could well open the gate to lawsuits. This creates a catch-22 situation in which scientists cannot identify a problem with vaccine ingredients without incurring mass liability for the drug manufacturers. 

But traffic pollution as a contributor? No problem. Because no single industry (with an army of lobbyists) is liable for increased autism due to traffic.

Three Premises for Understanding Health Risks

In both research and practice, healthcare science has still not completely caught up with three basic premises for assessing health risk:

  1. It’s rare to experience exposure to a single toxic source.
  2. Toxic outputs combine within us.
  3. Depending on health status and predisposition, individuals respond differently.

It’s rare to experience exposure to just one toxic source

Science has danced around the difficulties of targeting a vaccine ingredient by either-or thinking. Either mercury in vaccines causes autism, or it doesn’t. After all, some children receive the shots without any problem.

To understand the shortfalls in this approach, let’s look at one ingredient: mercury. Defining mercury exposure in an all-or-nothing way fails to account for cumulative mercury exposures. As per the Harvard study, suppose that:

  1. The family lives near a high-traffic area where there is mercury pollution.
  2. The family regularly eats high-mercury fish, like tuna.
  3. Mom has a mouthful of mercury amalgam fillings.
  4. Mom gets regular thimerosal-containing flu shots.

By the time Baby received the series of shots containing thimerosal, she had already received significant mercury exposure, potentially increasing risk for autism. The shots may have added to prior mercury levels and increased them beyond what was tolerable. But Baby’s prior exposures were never assessed. Nor are they considered a relevant factor in the current medical paradigm.

Toxic outputs combine within us

The Harvard study found other lower grade exposures to lead, manganese and methylene chloride, which were also implicated in increased autism incidence. According to the Harvard research, “EPA reviews have indicated that all of these pollutants have established or suspected effects on the nervous system and on the developing fetus.” How do those toxins interact with diesel particulate matter and mercury? Do these toxin potentiate when combined? Scientists don’t know. Nor is much known about how other vaccine ingredients (beyond mercury) interact with each othe, or how they combine with other toxic sources.

Depending on health status and predisposition, individuals respond differently

If an individual child has a high pre-existing load of mercury, diesel particulates, or other chemicals prior to vaccination, their response to vaccination may differ from that of a child with low exposure. Although no research has implicated any single gene in autism, a healthy gut, ease in detoxification and other factors all depend on a given individual’s biochemical capacities and health status.

Due to all of these factors, any shot or series of shots cannot be assumed to produce the same effect on each person. The shots are not given to a robot in a time capsule but to an individual with a complex health status. Through not assessing the factors— like pre-natal proximity to traffic pollution and others— that tend to increase (or lower risk) of autism, it’s impossible for science to predict any individual’s response to one or more shots, or to any other complex health intervention.

Alison Rose Levy @alisonroselevy writes on health, food and the environment. Her website is healthjournalistblog.com and her weekly radio program on Progressive Radio is Connect the Dots.