MOUNT VERNON, IND. -- Every conversation I've had with parents of Americans with autism has been riddled with salient moments, when essential truths are revealed about this extraordinarily complex developmental disorder. "Ah ha!" moments, so to speak. Such was the case with my July 2 conversation with Lisa Roach, who lives just outside the Ohio River town of Mount Vernon, Ind.
I had driven to the Posey County capital with Bloomington Alternative intern Megan Erbacher, who had grown up just down the road and has been friends with Roach's daughter Chelsea since childhood. Stan and Lisa Roach's oldest, 26-year-old Travis, has Asperger's Disorder, which is commonly known as "high-functioning autism." While his symptoms had been evident for years, Travis wasn't diagnosed until he was 8. At that time, Lisa learned her son was the first autistic child in the Mount Vernon school system.
ROCKPORT, IND. -- Crossing the Ohio River into Indiana from Owensboro, Ky., travelers are greeted with an image far more symbolic of Hoosier life than the tiny little "Indiana Welcomes You" sign that greets them now, or the billboards that dot Southwest Indiana highways featuring Abraham Lincoln, who spent part of his childhood just a few miles to the west of the William H. Natcher Bridge.
Indeed, the Hoosier state's howdy dominates the horizon a couple hazy miles before the bridge, when fat plumes of opaque-white air pollution from the Rockport Power Plant first appear. The coal-fired plant's twin cooling towers greet passing motorists with a hearty, "Welcome to Indiana, Land of Pollution." Minutes up U.S. 231, the box-like AK Steel plant rises just off the roadway to the east, adding an exclamation point to the greeting.
Between them, these two industrial facilities told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that they released nearly 26 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, water and land in 2008. In their Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) reports to EPA, AK Steel reported 19.1 million pounds, American Electric Power's Rockport plant 6.7 million.
For we radical environmentalists, whose warnings and arguments have been ignored, maligned and ridiculed since the Reagan Revolution dawned three decades ago, the Gulf of Oil disaster evokes a wicked brew of emotions and attitudes.
On the one hand, we feel the pain and horror of the unfolding environmental disaster as acutely as those who occupy the bioregion. We radicals have spent our entire lives fighting to protect the wildlife and natural features of the Gulf and every other coast, shoreline, riverbed or stream bank, wherever they've been threatened, which is everywhere. Despite the ennui that comes from witnessing first-hand decades of unrelenting ecological degradation, we still feel the pinch every time a special place is lost.
We can't help but revel in the never-ending spew of vitriol and venom aimed at BP, one of the planet's most contemptible corporate polluters. We delight in watching the arrogance and hypocrisy of the drill-baby-drills and political pimps -- like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and U.S. Senators Mary Landrieu from Louisiana, John Cornin from Texas and Lamar Alexander from Tennessee -- exposed with such laser-clear light.
I spent the past week organizing and reviewing my research on the connections between autism and the environment, which once again reminded me just how little anyone -- experts, doctors, parents, journalists, whoever -- actually knows about the subject. The only truth I’ve found in almost two years immersed in the subject is that definitive answers to the most fundamental questions about autism -- What is it? What causes it? What can be done about it? -- are virtually nonexistent.
On a journalistic level, that’s pretty damned exciting. There’s always something new to explore and write about. But on a societal level, it’s downright scary. Take the what-is-it angle. Here we have a range of mental disorders that, depending on how the spectrum is defined, impacts the lives and families of roughly one out of every 100 American children. Scientists and experts have studied it for more than 70 years. And yet, they haven’t even agreed to a firm diagnosis.
After having endured multiple viewings of the PBS documentary "The Vaccine War" and reconstructive surgery on my right knee in recent weeks, I can't say emphatically enough what a breath of sweet, clean oxygen it was to find a copy of Philip and Alice Shabecoff's book Poisoned for Profit in my P.O. box when I got out of the hospital.
The book, the subtitle of which is How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill, is no feel-good read, to be sure. Not by any stretch. But it serves as a reminder that there are honest, truth-telling journalists out there who engage their craft the way it's supposed to be engaged.
The Shabecoffs are not stenographers to power, a role the FRONTLINE documentary on vaccines and autism and the mainstream media play so well and so profitably. They're don't regurgitate what experts or focus groups say and call it journalism. No, they seek out, recognize and tell the truth as they find it, as the facts and common sense dictate, despite the fact that their message is one that few humans understandably can, or want to, wrap their heads around.
Long-time Bloomington Alternative readers know that we operate on an academic calendar here in our utopian little university town. But in our case that doesn't mean we go on vacation when the school year ends at the beginning of May. It means we really get down to work.
My obligations as a lecturer at IU effectively end this time of year, allowing the time I truly need for my writing projects. More on those in a minute, but this summer they include a book proposal on my autism-and-the-Indiana-environment exploration, some investigative reporting in northern Kentucky and a series of first-person accounts of my experiences with the medical industry over the past two years, emphasis on "industry."
And one of the perks that come with teaching at a journalism school is access to some of the best aspiring journalists the place has to offer. The last two editions have introduced Alternative readers to three of them -- Clinton Lake, Megan Erbacher and Kara Gentry. They enable us to recapture some of the local focus that we tend to lose during the school year, not to mention adding some new young voices to our biweekly journalistic fare.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is responsible for the massive pain and suffering that rural Indiana citizens have suffered while living near concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), according to a former president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.
"Our current administration has kind of set the table for Indiana being a battlefront for this whole confrontation between this method of farming and the people who want to enjoy their community," said Indianapolis attorney Richard D. Hailey. "He made it a part of the overall economic development plan for the state of Indiana. ... There's almost been in invitation to turn Indiana into the capital of concentrated animal farming operations."
Hailey represents a dozen Indiana citizens in lawsuits against CAFO operators. And a few weeks after other members of his legal team won an $11 million jury verdict in Jackson County, Mo., Hailey said he believes the public can use the courts to do what the rest of state government has thus far refused to do.
A new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study lends support to the argument that some children are susceptible to autism as a consequence of their exposures to environmental toxins.
At least part of the dramatic increase in autism diagnoses the past two decades cannot be explained by improving and expanding diagnostics, Michael E. McDonald and John F. Paul from EPA's National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory conclude in a seven-page study in the March 15 issue of the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
"From a precautionary standpoint, it seems prudent to assume that at least some portion of this increase in incidence is real and results from environmental factors interacting with susceptible populations," they wrote in the paper titled "Timing of Increased Autistic Disorder Cumulative Incidence."
When J.B. Handley told me about Jackson County, Ore., a few weeks ago, I wondered why no one had looked at autism rates there. The county of about 200,000 located just north of the California border has one of the largest populations of unvaccinated children in the nation. And, as Handley suggested, those kids' medical histories are natural subjects for studies on the cause-effect relation between autism and vaccines.
Well, as I contemplated whether I might find a way to follow up on this angle from 2,000 miles away, I learned that the PBS series FRONTLINE will air a documentary titled "The Vaccine War" this Tuesday, April 27, that will explore not only the conflict between the vaccine industry and parents who believe immunizations caused their children's autism, but also the situation in Jackson County.
In a news release on "The Vaccine War," FRONTLINE says it will lay bare the science of vaccine safety and examine the "increasingly bitter debate" between the "public health establishment" and a "formidable populist coalition of parents, celebrities, politicians and activists."
J.B. Handley concluded long ago that mercury is but one component in childhood vaccines that could be contributing to the epidemics of autism and developmental disabilities in American children. And after following two decades of ferocious debate and misdirected, inadequate study, he finds the topic a bit outmoded, the question a non sequitur. He answers it with a series of questions.
"Do I know that it and it alone is why we have all these kids with autism?" the co-founder of Generation Rescue said of mercury, a neurotoxin used for decades in childhood vaccines. "... How am I supposed to know whether it was the (mercury-laden) thimerosal, the aluminum, the antigen, the timing of the shot, the combination of the shots or all of the above? How in the world could I divine that?"
The studies that have been done on these questions were conducted for the wrong reasons, Handley said. And the children whose regression into autism corresponded with their vaccinations have not been studied at all. In fact, they have been deliberately avoided.