It's been a year since John McCain piqued my reporter's curiosity about the parallel epidemics of autism and environmental pollution that have swept our nation the past couple decades, a journalistically productive and, sadly, intellectually reaffirming 12-month period, to be sure.

Since the Arizona senator announced on the campaign trail last year that he would find the cause of autism if elected, I have pursued the question through interviews with parents, clinicians, advocates, physicians and researchers; stories, articles and books; and more than a few studies and videos. I've also published nearly a dozen-and-a-half stories on the subject in The Bloomington Alternative, CounterPunch online and print editions, NUVO and IU Alumni Magazine.

So far, nothing I've found contradicts my initial premise that toxic pollution is a contributing factor to the meteoric rise we've seen in the incidence of autism. To the contrary, that argument seems more plausible today than it did when I began this time last year. All signs point to "yes," so I am taking this project to the next level.

Phase II, as it were, will involve a more in-depth analysis of the connection between environmental pollution and autism in Indiana, within a new literary framework. From this point forward, the online aspect of this project will be called the "Autism and the Indiana Environment" blog. And it will involve research for a book with a working title of "Autism and the Environment: Indiana, Industrial Pollution and Developmental Disabilities," as well as more freelance writing.


'Autism and the Indiana Environment Blog'

***

The title "Autism and the Indiana Environment" is a bit of a misnomer, actually. At least initially, the angle will be more than just autism. Developmental disabilities overall seems the better measure for the impacts 80,000 industrial chemicals in our environment have inflicted on our species. While autism has the highest profile at the moment, it's but one developmental disability of many.

Indiana public schools, for example, have 17 diagnostic categories under which students receive special education. And consistent with national trends, enrollment data from the Indiana Department of Education (IDoE) show the percentage of students statewide in the "Autistic" category grew fivefold from 1998 to 2008, from 0.2 percent to 1 percent.


Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly & Co. created and licensed a mercury-containing vaccine preservative called thimerosal that many believe is responsible for the autism epidemic in America.

At the same time, however, other categories declined, lending some credence to the counterargument that changing diagnostics are responsible for the autism epidemic. In the Monroe County Community School Corp. (MCCSC), for example, the "Communication Handicapped" dropped from 5.9 percent to 4 percent over that decade, while "Autistic" increased from 0.5 percent to 1.7 percent. It's a correlation that makes sense.

From data I received from the MCCSC, the percentage of students enrolled in special ed programs across the board showed steady increases at both the state and Monroe County levels.

Special education rose from 14.7 percent of the statewide student population in 1998 to 16.7 percent in 2008. Over that same period, it increased from 13.5 percent of MCCSC students to 16.3 percent.

These statistics reflect studies that say one in six Americans has a developmental disability like autism, mental retardation or cerebral palsy, many of which are neuro-developmental. And a study in the Nov. 8, 2006, issue of the British medical journal The Lancet identified a handful of industrial chemicals, including PCBs and mercury, as "recognised causes of neuro-developmental disorders and subclinical brain dysfunction."

The study, titled "Developmental neurotoxicity of industrial chemicals," went on to say another 200 chemicals are "known to cause clinical neurotoxic effects in adults." Imagine what they do to the developing systems of children.

Indiana, of course, is among the most polluted states in the union, historically ranking 49th or 50th in state-by-state comparisons of environmental quality, with particularly high rates of toxic pollution. There's not a river, lake or stream in the state whose fish are safe to eat for women who are breastfeeding, pregnant or planning to get pregnant, according to state health and environmental officials. They're all too polluted with mercury and/or PCBs.

***

Where this new phase will lead, like autism itself, is a mystery that is yet to unfold.

I am told by IDoE officials that there are three file cabinets in Indianapolis full of special education data, so that's one direction it will take. And next month I'm interviewing David Kirby, a Huffington Post blogger and author of Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic, which won the "Investigative Reporters and Editors 2005 Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting in a Book."


Photograph by Steven Higgs

Indiana governor and former Lilly vice president Mitch Daniels worked in the Bush administration in 2002, when the "Lilly Rider" was secretly inserted into the Homeland Security bill and shielded drug manufacturers from lawsuits from parents who believe mercury in vaccines caused their children's autism.

I've begun reading the book, and Indiana figures prominently in the first five pages. The primary suspect in the vaccine-as-a-cause-of-autism debate is a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal. The government has acknowledged that thimerosal was widely used in childhood vaccines between 1990 and 2000, which corresponds with the sudden spikes in autistic children.

Thimerosal was created in the 1920s by Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly & Co. While the pharmaceutical giant no longer manufactured thimerosal in the 1990s, Lilly did license it to other drug manufacturers and profited from its widespread use in childhood vaccines.

In 2002, a group of parents prepared to sue over the harm they believed the mercury-containing vaccines inflicted on their children, and Lilly was among the primary targets. But when Congress passed the Homeland Security Bill that November, someone in conference committee anonymously slipped in a provision known as the "Lilly Rider" that effectively shielded manufacturers from such lawsuits.

That legislative maneuver angered U.S. Representative Dan Burton, R-Indianapolis, who believes his grandson's autism was caused by a vaccination. Evidence of Harm says Burton confronted House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, the day after the House vote, and they nearly came to blows.

The Indiana connection didn't end there. Rumor had it that the "Lilly Rider" was inserted at the behest of the White House, where former Lilly Senior Vice President Mitch Daniels worked as President George W. Bush's budget director.

Daniels, now in his second term as Indiana governor, denied he had anything to do with the Lilly Rider, which passed both Houses and became the law of the land.

Democratic Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, whose wife Susan Bayh is a former Lilly lawyer, voted for the Homeland Security bill.

Let the blogging begin.

Steven Higgs is author of the "Autism and the Indiana Environment Blog" and editor of The Bloomington Alternative. He can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.