I found myself on the other side of the journalistic equation this past week, when the Indiana Daily Student published a front-page story about my work on autism and the environment, including links between vaccines and the pervasive developmental disorder.
The story drew the expected shrill and vitriolic reaction from vaccine industry defenders, none of whom identify themselves by name. The comments section attracted more than three dozen responses from some of the highest profile actors in the national debate. What follows is my response to the fallout.
I would add my voice to those congratulating the Indiana Daily Student for tackling this complex and important subject. And I would urge student editors there and everywhere to stay on it, to pay less attention to sports and more to the critical issues facing their generation, like children’s environmental health. I wrote my first story about toxic chemicals as a grad student in Ernie Pyle Hall three decades ago next semester. And I am here to tell you this is the great, untold story of your generation.
"You have lived your entire lives under the Reagan Revolution philosophy that toxic chemicals aren’t really so bad, that protecting you from them isn’t all that necessary."
You have lived your entire lives under the Reagan Revolution philosophy that toxic chemicals aren’t really so bad, that protecting you from them isn’t all that necessary. Eighty thousand toxins approved by EPA for release into the environment every year? No problem. Study them? Not necessary.
That is your unfortunate legacy from my generation, the Earth Day generation.
A quarter century after Reaganism opened the floodgates for toxic chemicals to flow into your air, water, land and bodies, a 2005 study by the Environmental Working Group found an average of 200 toxins in the placentas of babies randomly selected nationwide by the Red Cross.
Here in Indiana, our state departments of environmental management, health and natural resources say fish caught in state waters are so contaminated with mercury and PCBs that women who are pregnant, breast feeding or thinking about getting pregnant shouldn’t eat them.
That’s you and your friends and your families. Unless you want to put your babies at risk, don’t eat the fish in Indiana.
In 1986, a bipartisan Congress indemnified vaccine manufacturers against any harm their vaccines might cause, and in 1988 the types and numbers of shots kids receive began an unprecedented climb. When Reagan left office at the end of 1988, American kids got 11 vaccine shots by the time they started school. Today’s schedule calls for 19 in the first six months of life, more than 30 before starting school, far more than any other industrial country in the world.
"Any journalist who seriously explores this issue will find the 'spectrum' of conditions afflicting children and their loved ones is mind-numbing."
Many, not all, but many contained mercury, the most caustic neurotoxin known to science. The process of mercury destroying a neuron is captured in this University of Calgary video.
After a decade of injecting nearly every child in America with massive amounts of mercury, those responsible -- government, medical and pharmaceutical interests -- in the late 1990s announced plans to voluntarily remove mercury from as many vaccines as possible, as soon as possible. They called it a “precaution.”
A recent review of worldwide studies of autism rates by EPA researchers dated the beginning of the autism epidemic to 1988-89, literally the moment the vaccine schedule began its acceleration.
Those who have attacked the IDS story would have you believe this is pure coincidence, that there is no connection between infant exposure to mercury in vaccines and the onset of the autism/developmental disabilities epidemic in American children.
If you examine the trend lines in Indiana for special education and find, like I did, a direct correlation between special ed enrollment spikes and the introductions of new “well-baby shots,” they will have you believe that is likewise coincidence.
It’s also random chance, they say, that Indiana special ed rates peaked at 17.9 percent during the 2005-06 school year and began dropping the next, precisely when kids with reduced mercury exposure from vaccines started school. According to Indiana Department of Education data, the rate was 17.5 percent in 2008-09, the last year I have collected data for.
Let’s be clear, guys. Autism is the condition du jour, and it is a tragedy. But it is just one piece of a much larger epidemic of developmental disabilities your generation must live with and pay for. The vast majority of kids receive special education because they cannot learn, behave or communicate well enough to receive public classroom education. Of 17 categories for special ed in Indiana, autism ranks No. 5.
"A recent review of worldwide studies of autism rates by EPA researchers dated the beginning of the autism epidemic to 1988-89, literally the moment the vaccine schedule began its acceleration."
Any journalist who seriously explores this issue will find the “spectrum” of conditions afflicting children and their loved ones is mind-numbing.
And these conditions are costly, emotionally and economically. The U.S. Vaccine Court in Washington, D.C., recently awarded $21 million to the family of a young girl for vaccine-induced autism. That’s what they say a lifetime of care will cost.
Yes, a federal court, created specifically to protect vaccine manufacturers, says vaccines can cause autism. It’s ruled so twice now.
And a new review of autism studies published in the Journal of Immunotoxicology concluded: "Documented causes of autism include genetic mutations and/or deletions, viral infections, and encephalitis following vaccination."
Your detractors have the audacity to say a connection between vaccines and autism has been “debunked,” and they say you -- as journalists or parents -- shouldn’t even explore the subject. Parents who watched their children regress into autism in direct response to vaccines -- 10s of thousands of them -- beg to differ.
I’ve engaged all sides of this debate, at the highest levels of both sides, and can tell you the parents are just as smart as the experts, and in many cases, I hate to say, more trustworthy.
Sadly, your generation has few journalistic role models to emulate in this quest to seek the truth about the connections between autism and environmental toxins like mercury. They have been missing in action, unwilling to ask the questions and demand the answers your generation needs to act with intelligence and forethought.
"Sadly, your generation has few journalistic role models to emulate in this quest to seek the truth about the connections between autism and environmental toxins like mercury."
The “news media” treat this issue as just another narrative, to be breathlessly updated only when something dramatic happens, like the vaccine-industrial complex’s never-ending crucifixion of Dr. Andrew Wakefield.
Please do not take your cues from them. Be journalists, not echo chambers for the expert and powerful.
If not you, who will ask questions like, “Should babies be vaccinated at birth against hepatitis B to protect them from the chance that their mothers had random sex or used dirty needles in the last few weeks of their pregnancies?”
Who should decide if a baby receives that shot? Fully informed parents or the vaccine-industrial complex?
My journalistic exploration of children’s environmental health began in the late 1990s when I discovered a quote from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s Dr. Philip Landrigan about the dearth of knowledge we have on those 80,000 chemicals in our environment:
“We are engaged in a massive, toxicological experiment, with our children and our children’s as the experimental subjects.”
That’s you he’s talking about.
As a journalist, my focus has been on the Ohio River Valley in Indiana, where, in addition to receiving mercury in vaccines, kids live in an environment where it literally rains on their heads. One in five of those kids receive special education. In places it’s one in four.
I am convinced that mercury -- but one of those 200 chemicals in your mothers’ placentas -- is one among many causes of developmental disability, and its presence in vaccines is the largest single contributor to the disabilities epidemic that afflicts your generation.
Mine, however, is but one version of the truth, as the IDS story comments clearly show. As professional journalists -- your generation’s watchdogs -- it’s your duty to find yours.
Steven Higgs can be reached at .