Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Poisoning ourselves

with 2 comments

UPDATE: See this post for more on environmental causes of autism.

The cause of the rise of autism and ADD disorders is still unknown. It’s not likely to be simply better detection and reporting: There really is an increase in those ailments as well as in illnesses such as asthma. [See comments below for reason for strikeouts. – LG] One thing that has also increased, of course, is the variety and amount of chemical pollutants in our environment. Discover has an interesting interview with a doctor who investigates these things. It begins:

Philip Landrigan doesn’t look like a tough guy. With his nest of white hair and vibrant blue eyes, he seems more like an amiable country doctor than a Harvard-trained physician who has fought the world’s most powerful corporations and bullied bureaucrats to protect the public from poisonous pollutants for nearly 30 years.

In the early 1970s, as a newly minted pediatrician, he was dispatched to El Paso, Texas, by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to investigate lead poisoning in children living near a lead smelter. His medical sleuthing revealed that even minuscule levels of lead caused profound damage to health and cognition, a discovery that helped propel the phaseout of lead in gasoline in 1976.

It would set the pattern for his career. In the forefront of battles to eliminate environmental toxins ever since, the Boston native has helped show the relationship between asbestos, pesticides, and benzene and human disease. From 1988 to 1993, Landrigan was chairman of the National Academy of Sciences committee whose chilling report showed that children in the United States were steeped in pesticides from a host of environmental sources, resulting in the Food Quality Protection Act. More recently, his cavernous, sparsely furnished office at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York has served as nerve center for tracking the environmental impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Currently a professor of pediatrics and director of the Mount Sinai Center for Children’s Health and the Environment, Landrigan is hardly ready to hang up his hat. Instead, the 65-year-old scientist is gearing up for his most ambitious project yet: the National Children’s Study, a landmark field investigation that will follow 100,000 American children from as soon as possible after conception to age 21. He hopes the research will identify factors in the environment—cultural, genetic, social, physical, and chemical—that make us more susceptible to disease. He also hopes it will shed light on why rates of birth defects, childhood cancers, asthma, obesity, violence, ADHD, autism, dyslexia, and other learning disabilities are skyrocketing.

Once headed for a career as a surgeon, Landrigan talked with DISCOVER about why he traded in his scalpel for a stethoscope, why he is unafraid of wading into battle against entrenched corporate interests, how he navigates hostile political waters, and what propelled him to become a champion of children’s environmental health.

Read the interview.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 May 2008 at 10:12 am

2 Responses

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  1. “It’s not likely to be simply better detection and reporting: there really is an increase in those ailments.”

    Source please? Because without a reliable one, this statement has all the integrity of “We know where the WMDs are”.


    15 May 2008 at 11:44 am

  2. Good point. I didn’t have a particular source in mind, just writing from what I’ve learned by reading. But a little Google work finds this:


    Some statistics from 1998, when the increase was already noticeable.

    From this site, the following:

    The number of people with asthma in the US. has increased throughout the 1980s and 1990s and shows no sign of abating. In fact, according to the American Lung Association, in 2001, over 6 million American children and close to 14 million American adults suffered from asthma. … Nationwide, children with asthma account for over 10 million school absence days every year. Asthma has become a huge public health issue, costing the US an estimated $14 billion per year.

    Later in the same article is a list of possible causes for the increase, none of which are better detection. Since the asthma increase has been going on so long, it does seem unlikely that it’s simply better detection.


    The Asthma Epidemic in The New England Journal of Medicine

    A definitive statement:

    Although conclusive evidence is lacking, the suspected causes of the asthma epidemic are manifold. While genetics is likely to play a role in asthma development, genetic traits change far too slowly to account for the recent increase in asthma cases. Improved recognition and diagnosis of asthma may also play a small role, although research indicates that this change alone cannot explain the recent upward trend.

    Given the current state of research, no one is certain what changes could explain the epidemic. Researchers do have suspicions, however: children are spending more time indoors, increasing their exposure to certain allergens and indoor air pollutants, and they are exercising less. More research on asthma’s relationship to environmental exposure and genetics will be needed for scientists to determine its cause and remedy.

    target=”_blank”>This article in the US Pharmacist is also helpful.


    First, an article in the Economist disagrees with me, saying that at least some and perhaps all of the increase is due to redefining the definition of autism so that it’s broader. Mind Hacks has a post on it.

    A Science Daily article from 2002 states:

    The unprecedented increase in autism in California is real and cannot be explained away by artificial factors, such as misclassification and criteria changes, according to the results of a large statewide epidemiological study. “Speculation about the increase in autism in California has led some to try to explain it away as a statistical issue or with other factors that artificially inflated the numbers,” said UC Davis pediatric epidemiologist Robert S. Byrd, who is the principal investigator on the study. “Instead, we found that autism is on the rise in the state and we still do not know why. The results of this study are, without a doubt, sobering.”

    Key findings of the study are that:

    * The observed increase in autism cases cannot be explained by a loosening in the criteria used to make the diagnosis.

    * Some children reported with mental retardation and not autism did meet criteria for autism, but this misclassification does not appear to have changed over time.

    * Because more than 90 percent of the children in the survey are native born, major migration of children into California does not contribute to the increase.

    * A diagnosis of mental retardation associated with autism had declined significantly between the two age groups. * The percentage of parent-reported regression (loss of developmental milestones) does not differ between two age groups.

    * Gastrointestinal symptoms, including constipation and vomiting, in the first 15 months are more commonly reported by parents in the younger group.

    “While this study does not identify the cause of autism, it does verify that autism has not been over-reported in the California Regional Center System and that some children diagnosed with mental retardation are, in fact, autistic,” Byrd said.

    OTOH, this report in Science-Based Medicine suggests that any real increase is small and still hidden in the data, though it may be present.

    The autism “epidemic” was thoroughly confused by the red herring of thermisol, the mercury-containing component of some childhood vaccines. That component is no longer in vaccines, and autism still is found at high rates, so it seems unlikely that thermisol was connected.

    On the whole, I should strike autism (and probably ADD) from the list. And I’ve now done so.


    15 May 2008 at 1:04 pm

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