Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Autism and Mercury Debate - Is the Focus Too Narrow?

I do not get too deeply involved in the blogger-internet debates over whether thimerosal causes, or contributes to autism. As a father of a boy with Autism Disorder, and a humble small town lawyer, I rely on expert sources to interpret the data and report their conclusions, and the reasoning behind their conclusions, in a way that I can follow. I do not try to "argue" the positions of the scientific researchers into submission. To date, it is my understanding that the data does not support a vaccine/mercury/thimerosal connection to autism although further research and further data could modify that conclusion.

I do read blogger and mainstream media commentary on the debate although I rarely find that these sources offer much real information and seldom depart from the "does thimerosal cause autism or does it not" dynamic. A full discussion of the issues is lacking. I have previously commented on other environmental contaminants as possible environmental causes or triggers of autism. There seems to be little consideration of the long list of environmental contaminants as possible autism causes or triggers. With that perspective, I was very interested when I found this online article discussing media coverage of the autism-vaccine debate The Wrong Debate Over Autism Why focusing on thimerosal misses a larger story in the Columbia Journalism Review.

In The Wrong Debate Over Autism Russ Juskalian, a student in the M.A. Science journalism program at Columbia University and a freelance writer, reviews media treatment of the vaccine/autism debate and suggests that the discussion may be too narrowly focussed. While acknowledging the importance of full, and continuing, investigation of the mercury and autism issue, Juskalian asks whether the intense, narrow focus on mercury has distracted from other possible environmental causes or triggers of autism:

" the whole issue of whether vaccines containing thimerosal or mercury cause autism served as a distraction from the ongoing efforts to tease apart the causes of this enigmatic disorder. That’s not to say the vaccine issue shouldn’t be covered at all, but that there are many more important—if less emotionally driven—questions related to autism that deserve further investigation.

Is autism caused by environmental factors? Can it be triggered by these factors? How does epidemiology try to solve these riddles? Are some people genetically predisposed to respond to environmental factors (like mercury)? Can we find a way to screen for these predispositions (like Poling’s metabolic condition)? What else is in our environment that poses a risk?"

Juskalian references Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and the long list of environmental contaminants that have been identified. He also mentions the recent AP information concerning the numerous pharmaceuticals in American tap water. Another relevant news item which could be added to Mr Juskalian's sources is the very recent report by Canadian Press that thirty per cent of Canadian dentists missed a voluntary 2007 target to better control how they release mercury into the environment.

It might be helpful for active participants in the mercury autism debate, and media outlets covering the debate, to read Mr. Juskalian's article, pause and ..... reconsider their approach to these issues. Neither an entrenched belief that vaccine mercury causes autism nor the equally entrenched belief of the Neurodiversity camp that there are no environmental causes of autism provide a wide enough lens to see the whole autism picture.

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