Sunday, December 12, 2010

Autism Speaks Role in Exploring the Environmental Causes of Autism and Other Learning Disabilities

Autism Speaks has been open to legitimate criticism on several aspects of its autism advocacy of late including promoting the views of those who do not view autism disorders as medical disorders and do not think that autism disorders should be cured.  AS even promotes the views of Alex Plank, a very high functioning young man, with no obvious or apparent autism deficits, who runs a forum which, amongst other disreputable behavior, actually permitted posters to cheer the passing of Dr. Ivar Lovaas.  On its official blog site though Autism Speaks has just given notice  that it can still engage in some  genuine, and much needed, autism advocacy with its sponsorship of, and reporting on, the Mount Sinai Children's Environmental Health Center's workshop "Exploring the Environmental Causes of Autism and Other Learning Disabilities".     , 

In Feeling exposed? Insights from a new meeting on environmental impacts in autism Autism Speaks board member, and co-founder and Executive Director of Safe Minds, Sallie Bernard provides an overview of “Exploring the Environmental Causes of Autism and Learning Disabilities” a conference  organized  by the Children’s Center for Environmental Health at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City run by Dr. Phil Landrigan.

Dr. Landrigan is no vaccine patent holder or industrial  or  pharmaceutical company apologist. His credibility on children's health areas is well summarized on Wikipedia.

"Landrigan's reputation rests largely on his role as a highly credible evidence-based advocate for public health, specifically in his focus on reducing the level of children's exposure to lead and pesticides and for his participation in the World Health Organization's global campaign to eradicate smallpox. 

He was also a central figure in developing the National Children's Study[1][3] and in the medical and epidemiological studies that followed the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.[4] Additionally, from 1995 to 1997, Landrigan served on the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veteran’s Illnesses,[5] and, in 1997 and 1998, served as Senior Advisor on Children's Health to the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he helped establish the Office of Children's Health Protection.

He has been awarded the Meritorious Service Medal of the US Public Health Service[6] and is a frequent consultant to the World Health Organization, which called Landrigan's work "instrumental in passing the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996."

In 2005, Landrigan, along with Drs. Ramon Murphy and David Muller, founded the Global Health Center, a division of the Mount Sinai Medical Center dedicated to finding evidence-based solutions to global health problems.[7]"

The Autism Speaks summary of the conference points out that the primary purpose of the conference was to highlight the fact that environmental autism science should now be considered mainstream.  Hopefully if this message permeates the consciousness of mainstream media decision makers it will  lead to fewer personal attacks on those who advance environmental theories of autism causation and more serious investigation of all possible environmental causes of autism disorders.  Some of the key points as reported by Autism Speaks:

"A few interesting bits of information came out of the conference. One was the definition of “environment” that the insiders use. It covers synthetic chemicals like pesticides, flame retardants and plasticizers; heavy metals like arsenic, lead and mercury; combustion and industrial by-products; diet and nutrients; medications, medical interventions, and substance abuse; infections; the microbiome; heat and radiation; and lifestyle factors. Some may be harmful; others protective. They may operate before conception, during pregnancy or in early life, and some may alter gene expression through epigenetic modifications to chemicals surrounding our genes. Craig Newshaffer, who runs the EARLI study to look at environmental factors among younger autism siblings, referred to the concept of the “exposome”, that is, everything we are exposed to and its effects on health. Dr. Birnbaum’ made the point that health does not equal medicine, and prevention through reduction in chemical exposures is of equal importance to health. Colleen Boyle from the CDC stated that the next prevalence report will be issued in April 2011. We will see if the 1 in 110 number from last year’s report has changed. New research from Korea was unable to confirm increased risk of autism due to parental age or low birth weight, which have been identified as risk factors in Western studies.

The most informative talk was by Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciotto from UC-Davis. She explained how changes in diagnosis do not account for most of the increase in autism rates, and how recent research by their group on mercury and flame retardant blood levels do not address whether these substances are causative for autism because the blood samples were taken years after the autism diagnosis. A paper out this week from UC-Davis found that proximity to traffic air pollution during pregnancy almost doubles the risk of autism. Another paper just accepted by a journal has found higher antibodies to cerebellar tissue in children with autism relative to controls, highlighting the immune component in autism.

Other than these interesting items, the conference covered minimal new ground as far as the science goes. Rather, the points of the meeting seemed to be to make the case that environmental factors research in autism must now be considered mainstream science and to showcase the work being done or about to be done to investigate the issue. Dr. Landrigan made the case for an environmental role by noting that the rate of autism has increased too much to be solely genetic, and that at most, genetics alone will end up explaining 40% of autism cases with the likely percentage much lower."

I appreciate Autism Speaks and Sallie Bernard's  reporting on this conference. I depart from Ms Bernard's description slightly in referring to the information as being just "interesting" points.  In my view it is critically important that the mainstream media, dependent as it is on advertising dollars from business interests, to hear directly from such credible sources as Dr. Landrigan that genetics alone does not explain the incredible increases in autism diagnoses, that environmental factors play a role.  It is also very important for people to understand that the environment can impact child neurological development in many different ways at different developmental times.  The specific reports by Dr. Hertz-Piccotto, herself a leading figure in environmental autism research, are worthy of substantial mainstream media attention.

Autism Speaks has stepped up to the plate with its support for this important conference and by reporting it on their official blog site.  But Autism Speaks can, and should, do more. No one can question the demonstrated ability of Autism Speaks to raise media attention for autism disorders.  Autism Speaks should use its ability to  break through the fog of mainstream media understanding of autism disorders and convince institutions like CNN, CBC, NY Times, Newseek, and all the major television networks to start understanding the environmental component of autism.

The Offit Offensive, with its focus on personally discrediting anyone who questions possible vaccine autism connections,  has dominated mainstream media discussion of any environmental component of autism.  That offensive has not worked and may have been counter productive. Regardless, the vaccine issue is only one component of possible environmental contributors to autism disorder increases as the conference highlights.  It is time that mainstream media began to demonstrate awareness of this reality. No one is better able to help the mainstream media understand the full scope of environmental issues and autism disorders  than Autism Speaks.  I hope  Autism Speaks dedicates more of its impressive resources to doing exactly that. 

1 comment:

John Best said...

This is good propaganda, have some scientists blame mercury as one of the factors which dishonestly rules it out as the primary factor. Autism Speaks, founded by one of the Rothschild family's peons who ran one of their TV networks, is here giving people false hope that they are actually searching for the truth. They are merely wasting more time by supporting more studies which will be intentionally perverted to report false information to deny the fact that Rothschild controlled drug companies are still poisoning babies with mercury. Of course, they will use Rothschild owned media to report these dishonest findings to prevent the truth from reaching the masses.