In reality, this introduction to a new Bloomington Alternative feature called "On the Trail" was written after-the-fact, as I've been on this path the past few weeks now. My last two pieces, for example, included first-person accounts of my recent forays in health-care and environmental reporting. And that's mostly what I will be doing here in the near future -- writing more about the journey than the destination.
This new focus reflects a shift in my priorities. Changes are at hand here that demand expanded horizons and time commitments. So what writing time I will have for the Alternative in the near future, anyway, will be used to share the experiences I have researching and writing stories for other publications. There aren't enough hours in the day.
My last two columns and this one, for example, chronicle the sources and information I have found researching a 2,000-word story for a national political newsletter on the role industrial pollution may play in the development of autism.
On the Trail: Autism and the Environment
A journalistic journey into autism and industrial chemicals
Along the way, I reviewed studies from leading medical journals like The Lancet and the Journal of the American Medical Association, as well as agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, the Institute of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and others.
"A November 2007 study in the British journal The Lancet put the incidence of children with neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at one in six."
I also exchanged e-mails with pioneers in the field of environmental health, like Philippe Grandjean, an adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Dr. Philip Landrigan from Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
They co-wrote a November 2007 study in the The Lancet that put the incidence of children with neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at one in six.
Grandjean and Landrigan are internationally known proponents of the Precautionary Principle, a scientific doctrine that calls for erring on the side of caution when it comes to releasing toxic chemicals into the environment.
Landrigan sent an as-yet unpublished essay titled "Emerging Technologies," which is intended to be a chapter in the forthcoming third edition of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Handbook on Children's Environmental Health. In it, he noted that 80,000 synthetic chemicals are registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, none of which exist in nature. Nearly all of them have been created in the past 50 years.
"Hoosiers, of course, are exposed daily to one of the most toxic environments in the nation, if not the world."
The Precautionary Principle, Landrigan wrote, shifts the burden such that chemicals are no longer presumed safe until proven dangerous. "The Precautionary Principle needs to be the bedrock of (a) new national framework," he wrote. "The key element of the Precautionary Principle is that it provides justification for acting in the face of uncertainty. It is a tool for acting on the basis of early warnings."
Grandjean was in Parma, Italy, last week at a meeting of the European Food Safety Authority. He serves on its expert panel on food contaminants, and he e-mailed answers to questions while on a train en route to Copenhagen. He responded in part to questions about the disputed link between autism and childhood vaccines, most of which contain a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal.
Childhood vaccines serve a beneficial purpose, he wrote. "But they should nonetheless be safe. However, the studies carried out so far have failed to reveal a clear link. If mercury is a cofactor, perhaps it works jointly with some other factors, like genetic predisposition."
The studies' failure to identify a definitive link between vaccines and autism "should not generate an erroneous impression that environmental factors are without importance," Grandjean wrote. Nor should the lack of documentation "be misunderstood as an indication that environmental chemicals play no role."
Efforts to identify the causes of autism must be vigilant, Grandjean continued. And they should target suspected chemicals, even if the cases against them are incomplete.
"This approach is at the heart of the Precautionary Principle, and ways to include it in current prevention strategies are urgently needed," he wrote.
The next path along the trail leads to the wealth of information and experience with autism that exists in Indiana. And high on the list of sources to approach is Cathy Pratt, an IU faculty member and director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, whose work I've already cited in this series.
"Grandjean and Landrigan are internationally known proponents of the Precautionary Principle."
If Grandjean and Landrigan are correct and brain damage from industrial chemicals contributes to developmental disabilities, then Pratt's work showing that Indiana has a higher incidence of autism than the national average would be expected. Hoosiers, of course, are exposed daily to one of the most toxic environments in the nation, if not the world.
And so, historically, were those who have lived in Bloomington anytime since the 1950s. The city's southside hiking/biking trail connects two former hazardous waste sites - one contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), the other with creosote.
PCBs and mercury are among the 202 chemicals that the Grandjean-Landrigan study identified as causing brain damage. Six Superfund sites in and within 20 miles of Bloomington released PCBs into the environment unchecked from the 1950s to the 1990s. Some still do.
As Landrigan wrote in his essay, American industry produces more than 3,000 synthetic chemicals in quantities of 1 million pounds or more per year, which EPA classifies as “high-production-volume (HPV) chemicals.”
“HPV chemicals are widespread in the modern environment,” he said. “They are found in a great array of consumer goods, cosmetics, medications, motor fuels and building materials. They are detectable in much of the United States in air, food and drinking water.”
Upcoming on the itinerary: Exploring the premise that Indiana, because of its massive toxic pollution, is fertile ground for developmental disabilities; a possible sit-down interview in New York with Landrigan, whose research has informed my environmental writing for the past decade or more; and interviewing some Bloomington parents who are convinced that their child's vaccinations led to autism.
The trail ahead is long indeed.
Steven Higgs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.