Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee biased against environmental studies

August 11, 2012

The federal panel charged with allocating funds for autism research has squandered hundreds of millions in taxpayer money on ideological, nonscientific priorities. Its decisions have been financially irresponsible and practically ineffective. Its chairman should be fired and many board members replaced.

So says the Brooklyn-based Elizabeth Birt Center for Autism Law and Advocacy (EBCALA) in a stinging critique of autism policy under the Bush and Obama administrations titled "A Critical Review of the Performance of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee" (IACC).

"From the controversial appointment or retention of committee representatives, to the troublesome history of committee members themselves, to the lack of accountability for the few advances made in autism research, to the questionable direction of the Strategic Plan, it is fair to state that the IACC is not living up to Congress’ and the public’s expectations," the July 10, 2012, report says.

Texas studies show chemical-induced genetic changes passed on to offspring

May 27, 2012

The pernicious impact of toxic chemicals in the body, from suspected roles in autism to human response to everyday stress, can manifest themselves in future generations, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Texas (UT) and Washington State University (WSU).

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the animal study found DNA changes wrought by a common fungicide are passed down from parents to offspring, according to a May 22, 2012, UT news release. The researchers studied how the animals respond to stress.

“The ancestral exposure of your great-grandmother alters your brain development to then respond to stress differently,” said WSU professor Michael Skinner.

Study finds mercury emitted into atmosphere transforms, enters food chain

January 8, 2012

Mercury released from Ohio River Valley industries is damaging the brains of children around the world.

That's a conclusion that can be drawn from a University of Washington (UW) study published online Dec. 19 in the journal Nature Geoscience, which concludes mercury in the upper atmosphere can circulate for "long periods of time" before falling back to the Earth's surface.

“Much of emitted mercury is deposited far from its original sources,” the paper's lead author Seth Lyman said in a UW news release. “Mercury emitted on the other side of the globe could be deposited right at our back door, depending on where and how it is transported, chemically transformed and deposited.”

Kids are more susceptible to toxic pollution

August 6, 2011

I was reminded of the phrase "children are not little adults" this past week when an assistant commissioner from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) wrote a letter to NUVO in Indianapolis challenging a story I wrote titled "Indiana's toxic air affecting children." I was working as an environmental writer at IDEM in the late 1990s when agency officials began using that soundbite to explain why children were more vulnerable to the effects of toxic pollution than were, say, their parents.

At that time, practically everything IDEM's Media and Communication Services did revolved around was the notion that toxic pollution disproportionately impacted children's health. Ipso facto, polluters needed to clean up their acts. I recall being told that the chief lobbyist for some of the state's most venal polluters accused then-IDEM Commissioner John Hamilton of "playing the kid card" over our emphasis on children's environmental health.

It's hard to tell from the outside how much children's environmental health drives the IDEM agenda under Mitch Daniels, but the agency's Website and a story written for the Indiana Daily Student last year by one of my students suggests at least one program maintains the focus.

MacNeil's 'Autism Now' honest, enlightened, public-interest journalism

April 30, 2011

After an involuntary hiatus, it's always invigorating to re-engage with the "real work" (Beat poet Gary Snyder's words), especially when the initial reconnect is celebratory in nature. Especially when the celebration involves an institution at the heart of the mission, in this case journalism.

And so, with a bow to journalist Robert MacNeil, I begin this summer's phase of my investigation into the twin epidemics of autism and developmental disabilities. His investigative report Autism Now, which aired on the PBS NewsHour in April, reacquainted me with the issues I'm exploring in the Ohio River Valley, where the rain is toxic and data show the kids just aren't quite right, developmentally speaking. Three years' into this project, I've not found a more honest or enlightened media report.

February 13, 2011

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.

New study highlights Indiana’s contribution to disabilities epidemic

January 29, 2011

News from and about Indiana this past week should scare its citizens and the nation straight about the quality of leadership produced in the Hoosier state, and what role it should play in America's future.

A Jan. 26 study from the nonprofit group Environment America ranked Indiana fifth nationwide in the release of mercury into the environment. Two days later, CBS News reported that the first political ads of the 2012 presidential race will air during the NFL Pro Bowl game this weekend to promote Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Americans' checkered history with environmental tragedy

January 17, 2011

While the world watched America respond to the Tucson Massacre, I've been preoccupied with how that same nation has reacted to tragedies of a different nature. I'm teaching a class this semester on the environment in the news, and for the first discussion I developed a timeline of environmental milestones and legislation in the post-World War II era, from early concerns over pesticides to the ongoing autism epidemic and global climate change.

A few glimmers of hope are tucked away in this particular view of American history -- especially the power public opinion wielded in the 1970s. But the nut graf to this tale isn't good. As illustrated by the following environmental retrospective, gleaned mostly from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the WorldWatch Institute and government Web sites, the milestones were mostly tragedies. And American leaders didn't react to them very well.

FDA to re-evaluate mercury in dental fillings

December 18, 2010

A new study linking autism to a specific type of neurological problem has buttressed the case against one possible environmental cause of the pervasive developmental disorder. And the conclusions are particularly compelling, given its release three months after the U.S. Vaccine Court awarded $20 million to a Georgia girl for the same condition.

The court ruled Hanna Poling's pre-existing mitochondrial disorder was aggravated by the MMR vaccine, which led to a brain disorder that manifested itself "with features of autism spectrum disorder." The just-published University of California-Davis study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found "children with autism were more likely to have mitochondrial dysfunction."

December 4, 2010

If you think you're going to hike with Ron Habney, you'd better be prepared. The 6-foot-tall, 130-pound, 25-year-old treks an average four to six miles a day on some of the most challenging trails in Southern Indiana's Upland regions. Not everyday, to his chagrin, but multiple times a week. Last summer, on one 96-degree day, Ron hiked 9.4 miles through the Charles Deam Wilderness Area in two hours and 20 minutes.

So says John Willman, who knows. He's been Ron's hiking companion and caregiver for almost eight years now. "He's truly an athlete," John says of Ron. "His hiking skills are almost unmatched." Beneath close-cropped, thick, black hair, Willman's blue-green eyes beam proud-parent-like as he recounts Ron's on-trail achievements. But they're just a footnote to this rainy-gray November afternoon interview.

Ron has autism, and John, who is not Ron's parent, is preoccupied with his fate.

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