Is there really a causal relationship between mercury exposure and autism? Some evidence to the contrary!

written by Arnold P. Wendroff, PhD
CHE Partner

In response to the publication of an article and video, Dr. Wendroff submitted these comments to the publishers:

Dear Age of Autism Editors,

I was prompted to write to you by the article in today’s Age of Autism.

If in fact there was a valid correlation between mercury exposure as a cause of autism, one would expect that the Caribbean and Latino populations who are exposed to elemental mercury via its magico-religious use would experience a considerable excess of autism, which they apparently do not.

Attached are two papers (links below) describing a case of acrodynia, apparently from exposure to mercury vapor from a magico-religious mercury spill by a prior occupant of the Puerto Rican family’s apartment. Not described, but discussed in my accompanying comments were the two siblings and the mother who were also exposed, and chronically poisoned.

These exposures are relatively commonplace, as predicted by the papers by Zayas & Ozuah (1996) and Ozuah et al 2003, yet no excess cases of autism have been reported in these Caribbean and Latino populations.

If you are aware of any such correlation I would be most grateful to be informed.

Links to papers

Acrodynia and hypertension in a young girl secondary to elemental mercury toxicity acquired in the home.

Elemental mercury poisoning presenting as hypertension in a young child.

 

CHE Director to participate in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Pitch Day

Elise Miller, MEd
Last month, CHE hosted a national partnership call on emerging research regarding the human exposome titled The Exposome: Measuring Multiple Factors Impacting Our Health. This month, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has invited CHE’s director, Elise Miller, to pitch an idea she entitled “Human Genome + Human Exposome = Your Health.” She will elaborate on this idea along with seven other finalists at RWJF’s first-ever “Pioneer Pitch Day” to be held October 16th in New York City. CHE’s proposal is one of eight finalists from more than 500 submissions. Please see the RWJF blog featuring Elise, which includes her original idea as well as information about the other presenters and judges. We wish her well!

Top 10: October 2013

For the third quarter of 2013, CHE has selected stories and studies that come from a wide range of environmental health topics. Comments are welcome.

  1. Drug-resistant ‘superbugs’ deemed urgent threats: US report
    “For organism after organism, we’re seeing this steady increase in resistance rates,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, said in a telephone interview. “We don’t have new drugs about to come out of the pipeline. If and when we get new drugs, unless we do a better job of protecting them, we’ll lose those, also.” This is not a new issue, but it’s gaining substantially greater press.
    [See the CDC report: Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013]
  2. Journal editors trade blows over toxicology
    Leading toxicologists and endocrinologists have been trading barbs in the pages of respected journals over ‘endocrine disrupters’—chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA), that affect the endocrine system and have been linked to developmental problems in humans.
    [See the editorials: Scientifically unfounded precaution drives European Commission’s recommendations on EDC regulation, while defying common sense, well-established science and risk assessment principles; Policy decisions on endocrine disruptors should be based on science across disciplines: a response to Dietrich et al.; Transparency and translation of science in a modern world and Science and policy on endocrine disrupters must not be mixed: a reply to a “common sense” intervention by toxicology journal editors plus The 2013 Berlaymont Declaration on Endocrine Disrupters and analyses and commentary: Eight questions for toxicologists against proposals for new EU chemicals laws; EDCs: negotiating the precautionary principle and Special report: scientists critical of EU chemical policy have industry ties]
  3. Air pollution responsible for more than 2 million deaths worldwide each year, experts estimate
    Co-author of the study, Jason West, from the University of North Carolina, said: “Our estimates make outdoor air pollution among the most important environmental risk factors for health. Many of these deaths are estimated to occur in East Asia and South Asia, where population is high and air pollution is severe.”
    [See the study: Global premature mortality due to anthropogenic outdoor air pollution and the contribution of past climate change]
  4. American Academy of Pediatrics demands FCC protect children from cell phone & wireless radiation
    The American Academy of Pediatrics submitted a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) urging “the FCC to adopt radiation standards” that 1) protect children’s health and well-being from radiation emitted by cell phones and other wireless devices; 2) reflect how people actually use their cell phones; and 3) provide sufficient information that enables consumers to make informed decisions when they purchase mobile phones. CHE considers this noteworthy because of AAP’s stature.
  5. New findings about arsenic: These items reveal several new concerning health effects from arsenic, an interaction between arsenic and estrogen, and a promising treatment for arsenic-contaminated soil.
    1. Contaminant found in most US rice causes genetic damage: A study has shown the first direct link between rice consumption and arsenic-induced genetic damage. [See the study: High arsenic in rice is associated with elevated genotoxic effects in humans and a related announcement: FDA explores impact of arsenic in rice]
    2. Drinking arsenic-laced water is like smoking for decades, study finds: The researchers found that people drinking water with dangerous levels of arsenic had decreased lung capacities. The effect appeared even when the researchers controlled for people’s ages, genders, smoking habits and other traits that affect lung capacity. The more arsenic the researchers found in the volunteers’ bodies, the smaller the volunteers’ lung capacity. [See the study: Arsenic exposure and impaired lung function: findings from a large population-based prospective cohort study]
    3. Arsenic immunotoxicity: a review: Overall, the data show that chronic exposure to arsenic has the potential to impair vital immune responses which could lead to increased risk of infections and chronic diseases, including various cancers.
    4. The arsenic in our drinking water: Long famed for its homicidal toxicity at high doses, a number of studies suggest that arsenic is an astonishingly versatile poison, able to do damage even at low doses. Chronic low-dose exposure has been implicated not only in respiratory problems in children and adults, but in cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancers of the skin, bladder and lung.
    5. Low arsenic levels linked with heart disease: Exposure to even low levels of arsenic in drinking water and food may increase the risk of developing, and dying from, heart disease, a new study suggests. [See the study: Association between exposure to low to moderate arsenic levels and incident cardiovascular disease: a prospective cohort study]
    6. Researchers find cancer risks double when two carcinogens present at ‘safe’ levels: New research conducted by Texas Tech University scientists has found that low doses of both chemicals together [arsenic and estrogen]—even at levels low enough to be considered “safe” for humans if they were on their own—can cause cancer in prostate cells. [See the study: Chronic exposure to arsenic, estrogen, and their combination causes increased growth and transformation in human prostate epithelial cells potentially by hypermethylation-mediated silencing of MLH1]
    7. Friendly bacteria to detox arsenic: A new study has identified bacterial strains capable of oxidising toxic arsenic into a less toxic form, offering a feasible and affordable solution to the problem of arsenic in soil and water. [See the study: Arsenic-tolerant, arsenite-oxidising bacterial strains in the contaminated soils of West Bengal, India]
  6. Milestone study probes cancer origin
    The international team of researchers was looking for the causes of certain mutations as part of the largest-ever analysis of cancer genomes. The well-known ones such as UV damage and smoking mutate the DNA, increasing the odds of cancer. But each also leaves behind a unique hallmark—a piece of “genetic graffiti”—that shows if smoking or UV radiation has mutated the DNA. Researchers, led by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the UK, hunted for more examples of “graffiti” in 7,042 samples taken from the 30 most common cancers. The ability to identify the specific cause of a mutation could change cancer litigation and policy profoundly.
    [See also Towards incorporating epigenetic mechanisms into carcinogen identification and evaluation]
  7. New findings on brain development and mental health: This selection of studies provide new insights on environmental contributors to mental health: food, lead, tobacco use and antibiotic use.
    1. Early ‘junk food’ exposure risks kids’ mental health
      Along with the myriad negative effects on physical health, “junk food” during pregnancy and in early childhood is linked to a significantly increased risk for poor mental health, including anxiety and depression, in very young children, new research shows. [See the study: Maternal and early postnatal nutrition and mental health of offspring by age 5 years: a prospective cohort study]
    2. Study links high lead levels to anxiety, alcohol problems: Childhood lead exposure in the South Australian city of Port Pirie has been linked to psychological illness and substance abuse problems in adulthood. [See the study: Prospective associations between childhood low-level lead exposure and adult mental health problems: the Port Pirie cohort study and more about the Birth to Now Study]
    3. Anxiety in your head could come from your gut: Scientists think there may be a link between what’s in your gut and what’s in your head, suggesting that bacteria may play a role in disorders such as anxiety, schizophrenia and autism. The foods and drugs that we use influence our gut bacteria, and so this is in part an environmental health issue.
    4. Smoking in pregnancy linked to child depression: Children whose mothers smoked during pregnancy have altered brain growth, which may put them at greater risk of anxiety and depression. [See the study: Prenatal tobacco exposure and brain morphology: a prospective study in young children]
  8. Fukushima water leaks: new source of health concerns?
    The radioactive water leak from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant—which was upgraded this week from level 1 to level 3, indicating the leak is a “serious incident”—has some wondering whether the contaminated water could be a source of concern for human health. Fukushima is a nuclear power catastrophe that refuses to be resolved, which could have broad implications throughout the industry and the world.
    [See also Oceanic plume of radioactivity predicted to reach US by 2014 and the related study: Multi-decadal projections of surface and interior pathways of the Fukushima Cesium-137 radioactive plume and Pollution, Fukushima radiation tracked by environmental websites]
  9. Report: environmental chemicals are a pregnancy risk
    From mercury to pesticides, Americans are exposed daily to environmental chemicals that could harm reproductive health, the nation’s largest groups of obstetricians and fertility specialists said Monday. Having the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists publish an opinion of this nature raises the level of awareness and conversation around this issue.
    [See the ACOG Committee Opinion: Exposure to Toxic Environmental Agents]
  10. Wal-Mart announces phase-out of hazardous chemicals
    Prodded by health and environmental advocates, Wal-Mart announced Thursday that it will require suppliers to disclose and eventually phase out 10 hazardous chemicals from the fragrances, cosmetics, household cleaners and personal care products at its stores. Because Wal-Mart, by virtue of its market share, can shift industry-wide behavior of suppliers, this announcement could be a game-changer.
    [See responses from advocacy groups on the Safe Markets site]