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.