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.
Nothing makes J.B. Handley laugh more quickly than the suggestion that he and other parents who question the safety of the American vaccine schedule are "radicals." The Portland, Ore., businessman is a managing partner in a leverage buyout fund. And when it came to vaccinating their first two children, he and wife Lisa religiously followed the vaccination schedule set by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
"We were as mainstream as they come," the father of three said during a telephone interview. "We were the ones who followed the letter of the law."
Questioning their doctor about the risks of vaccination never occurred to them, Handley continued. The same goes for hundreds of parents he has spoken with who watched their children's health steadily decline following their vaccinations, eventually regressing into autism, like 7-year-old Jamie Handley did as an infant.
"Almost to a person, we were the ones who fully vaccinated," he said. "You know?"
This is the time of year when classroom responsibilities overwhelm my journalistic passions, and my writing tends to be more reflection than exposition. And let me tell you, nothing spurs reflexive contemplation like finding yourself in polar opposition to someone whose life work has profoundly influenced your own.
In my case, that someone is Dr. Philip J. Landrigan from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, whose research at the Children's Environmental Health Center there first caught my attention in the late 1990s when I was a senior environmental writer at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM). When I began exploring the links between toxic pollution and autism 17 months ago, a 2006 study Landrigan co-wrote titled "Developmental neurotoxicity of industrial chemicals" was the first link that Google produced when I searched for "autism and environment."
Nearly a year and a half later, I am persuaded that mercury and/or other chemicals in vaccines are among the industrial chemicals that caused the autism epidemic of the past two decades. I do not believe that vaccines caused the epidemic, but my work has convinced me that neurotoxins in them contributed to it. And in some children, they did cause autism. The question for them isn't whether, it's how, and it demands an answer.
One of the nation's leading voices on children's environmental health has called for focused and expanded research into the cause-effect relation between industrial chemicals and autism.
"Long and tragic experience that began with studies of lead and methylmercury has documented that toxic chemicals can damage the developing human brain to produce a spectrum of neurodevelopmental disorders," Dr. Philip Landrigan from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine wrote in a Jan. 16, 2010, article in the medical journal Current Opinion in Pediatrics.
Today's children, he noted, "are at risk of exposure to 3,000 synthetic chemicals produced in quantities of more than 1 million pounds per year, termed high-production-volume (HPV) chemicals. HPV chemicals are found in a wide array of consumer goods, cosmetics, medications, motor fuels and building materials."
Marty Pieratt's awareness of autism began when the 1988 movie Rain Man was being filmed in Cincinnati, a year or so before his son, Carter, was born. Pieratt worked as a reporter on local television, and his editors assigned him stories on autism, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. In the movie, Hoffman plays an autistic savant, Cruise his long-lost brother.
"I can remember doing stories on autism," Pieratt said. "But little did I know that I'd personally be faced with the quintessential autism story."
Carter was born on "12-11-87," Marty says lyrically, and for the first three years of his life, "He was perfect, a mouthy little toddler." But soon after the family purchased a small farm in Walton on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River Valley about 20 miles from Cincinnati, Marty noticed his son had an unusual fascination with the grass after mowing. Carter also ran wind sprints, over and over again.
The costs associated with the autism epidemic are often hard to quantify. No dollar amount can be broadly ascribed to the personal, familial and social costs that will be extracted by the generation of disabled kids America has produced since the Reagan Revolution of the early 1980s. No one claims to know for sure how many of them there are, let alone what they cost.
But 30 years worth of data recorded in annual "Special Education Statistical Reports" from the Indiana Department of Education (DoE) offer some hints. And when the State Board of Education approves the 2009-2010 Report on Feb. 2, 2010, it will mark the 32d year in a row that special ed funding has risen in Indiana.
Growing up in the Ohio River town of Evansville, Ind., is hazardous to a child's developmental health. According to data from the Indiana Department of Education (DoE), 22 percent of students in the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation receive special education services.
But that isn't the highest ratio of special ed kids on the Indiana side of the Ohio River Valley. That distinction belongs to the nearby town of New Harmony, on the banks of the Wabash River just north of its confluence with the Ohio, where more than one in four are special ed students.
The state's third largest school system is, however, reflective of Hoosier students living on the Indiana side of the Ohio watershed, from one end to the other. An analysis of DoE data for the 19 counties closest to the river show 20 percent of public school students receive what Indiana law calls "special education and related services."
BROOKLYN, N.Y. - Anyone with a passing knowledge of Indiana’s political and business cultures would not be surprised to learn state leaders played feature roles in one of the first great scandals of the George W. Bush administration. Or that the episode involved perhaps the greatest environmental disaster of the postmodern age -- the intravenous exposure of an entire generation of children to a powerful neurotoxin.
After all, “leaders” like Dan Quayle, Evan Bayh and Mitch Daniels have led their state to the No. 49 ranking in Forbes magazine’s 2007 comparison of state-by-state environmental quality. Of Indiana and other bottom-dwellers like No. 50 West Virginia, the business magazine said, “All suffer from a mix of toxic waste, lots of pollution and consumption and no clear plans to do anything about it. Expect them to remain that way."
Indeed, former Eli Lilly and Company vice president, then-Bush budget director and now-Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels appears on Page 5 of David Kirby’s 2005 award-winning bestseller Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy. So does then-Lilly CEO Sidney Taurel. In large measure, the Indiana players inspired the book, the former New York Times reporter said during a recent interview at his home in Brooklyn.
BROOKLYN, N.Y. - Five years after the publication of his book on autism and mercury in vaccines, David Kirby finds much of the ongoing debate on both subjects rather tiresome. Before dismissing the notion that the connection between the two has been debunked, he pauses. He only wishes the public discourse were focused there.
"It's crazy that in this debate, we're still debating whether autism numbers are actually going up or not, which is insanity to me," he said. "It's people desperately clinging to this belief that autism is genetic, that it's always been with us at this rate, that we're just better at counting it, better at diagnosing it."
The two most recent government-backed studies put the rates in children at 1 in 110 and 1 in 91. And since males are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than females, that means roughly one in every 60 males of all ages has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
"So where are the 1 in 60 men with autism in this country, in this world?" asked the author of Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy. "They don't appear to exist. I've never seen them. I've met a few adults with autism in my life, but very, very few."
BROOKLYN, N.Y. - Two days before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its newest data on U.S. autism rates, author David Kirby consented to a two-hour, videotaped interview in his street-level brownstone apartment in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. The government, the former New York Times reporter said, always drops its worst news late on Fridays, assuming the attention-addled mainstream media will forget it by Monday, when people actually pay some attention.
While the release of new autism data on the Friday before Christmas would normally trigger nervous anticipation in the whirlwind of Washington spin, this year's holiday news dump was anticlimactic. The CDC had revealed the gist of its autism findings in October, after a study in the journal Pediatrics said its incidence had reached 1 in every 91 children.
To inoculate the public against the 65 percent increase the Pediatrics study represented over the CDC's last estimate of 1 autistic child in every 150 born in 1994, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius herself intervened the day it came out. In a hastily arranged conference call with the autism community, Sebelius announced that preliminary numbers in the third in a series of CDC studies show the ratio was 1 in 100 for kids born in 1996.