Saturday, April 22, 2006

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

(The more things change, the more they stay the same)


A Heavy Metal Story

In the late 1980's, doctors and public health officials in the UK and the US were struggling to understand why a certain pediatric disorder had been rising dramatically - and alarmingly - over the past decades. Heartbroken parents wanted answers, answers which were not forthcoming from the "medical establishment".

In 1989, a pair of unconventional researchers revealed that they had discovered the cause for this disorder, and that it was related to the use of a particular heavy metal in products intended for infants and small children. Used to prevent one problem, this metal was now blamed for causing a life-altering disorder which was reaching epidemic proprtions in the US, UK and Western Europe.

Realizing the importance of their discovery, these two researchers disdained waiting to publish their results in a peer-reviewed journal and thook their case directly to the public on an television news programme. Needless to say, this caused quite a public uproar and put the scientific and medical "establishments" on the defensive.

Quite soon after the news programme aired, government and academic scientists attempted to reproduce the findings of the two maverick researchers, but were unable to obtain similar findings. These government and academic scientists were accused of attempting a "cover-up".

A panel of scientists convened by the government made a concerted attempt to reproduce the two researchers' findings but were unsuccessful. They concluded that the findings were spurious and that the heavy metal in question was not causing the disorder. This was labeled by many in the public as a "whitewash" and a "cover-up".

A larger panel, led by a major figure in the field, worked for over three years to try to find the truth of the matter. They used more sophisticated tests and larger epidemiologic samples, as well as clinical testing and still were unable to find a connection between the heavy metal and the disorder. Despite the leader's prominence in past efforts to find the cause for this disorder, the results of the panel were alleged to have been "decided beforehand" and dismissed as a "cover-up".

Five years and millions of dollars of fruitless research later, this "explanation" of the disorder has largely receded into the public unconsciousness. A simple change in child care has been at least partially credited with a decline in the incidence of this devastating disorder - a change that had nothing to do with the heavy metal alleged to be the cause. Periodically, an uninformed person (e.g. here, here and here) will "unearth" the hypothesis and have a brief run with it, but the issue is - as far as the scientific and medical communities are concerned - moot. In reality, the two "maverick" researchers had simply failed to eliminate other causes for the results they found.
What was the dread "pediatric disorder"? "Cot death", called "crib death" in the US and later called Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

What was the heavy metal? Antimony, used as a flame retardant in the plastic covers of cot (crib) mattresses.

What does this have to do with anything? Figure it out... Substitute "autism" for "cot death" and "mercury in vaccines" for "antimony in cot mattresses" and it looks like a pretty good fit. Especially the part about the media and non-scientific parent groups taking the lead in promoting an hypothesis that lacks adequate supporting data.

I predict that the end of the mercury-autism story will be similar. The "hard-core" believers will persist unto death in the pathetic faith that their pet hypothesis is correct and the rest of the world will just step around them.

Thanks to John Emsley's book Elements of Murder for making me aware of the elements (pun definitely intended!) of this story.
Prometheus

9 Comments:

Blogger Flea said...

A brilliant piece of analysis, Prometheus. Well done.

Norman Podhoretz says a true intellectual is able to draw connections between things.

You, sir, have joined a select group.

best,

Flea

22 April, 2006 15:14  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The autism groups still discuss the dangers of Sb in mattress covers and flame retardant pajamas, etc. It's very much alive in certain circles.

Of course the manufacturers aren't an attractive target for trial lawyers. Can't get any money for antimony

22 April, 2006 16:53  
Anonymous HCN said...

Once upon a time I was on a listserv that pertained to my son's specific disorder (a neurologically based speech communication disorder, not autism... but I left when the parents of autistic kids were taking, especially the "You must chelate!" were shouting the rest of us down).

About three years ago I got an email from a grandmother who asked me if I thought the "Back to Sleep" program to reduce SIDS might have been the reason for the apparent increase in apraxia.

I kid you not.

(I had to tell her that my son was born over 5 years before that, and his neonatal seizures were more likely the culprit. Also, that only my youngest was born after that program, and she was also the only one to get the HepB at birth... and since she was the quickest to talk,become mobile and read ... that obviously the "Back to Sleep" and the HepB were to blame! Truly having a 4 month old crawling and then RUNNING at 10 months is NOT a good thing!).

22 April, 2006 19:28  
Blogger notmercury said...

Tish!, when you speak French, it drives me wild, Cara Mia!

Great stuff Prometheus, not that we would expect anything less from you.

I was just reading about the effects of removing lead from gasoline and I didn't realize it was to accommodate catalytic converters, not over health concerns for lead exposure.

It actually came as a surprise when Pb levels in the environment and blood of humans started to decrease as lead was removed.

In the case of thimerosal, everyone is watching for a decrease in autism rates and it simply isn't happening.

23 April, 2006 05:30  
Anonymous anonimouse said...

I think the hardcores will stick around. If you're an anti-vaxer, suspicious of government and/or otherwise bound to the autism-mercury theory, you will fight this thing to the bitter end.

What will likely happen is that the celebrities and politicians will mostly disassociate themselves from the movement. Lawyers will move on when they see they can't make any money from drug companies because their claims are getting kicked out of court. I'll even suggest some of the more "mainstream" researchers will move away from the hypothesis.

I think what will happen with chelation is what happened with secretin - after a few years, people will realize that chelation really doesn't work after all and move on to the next big quack treatment.

24 April, 2006 14:51  
Blogger María Luján said...

Hi anonimouse
Why the generalization for all?
María Luján

25 April, 2006 06:00  
Anonymous anonimouse said...

Maria,

There are people who are proposing an autism-mercury link who legitimately look at this from a scientific perspective and haven't come to some sort of pre-ordained conclusion. I would also suggest there are those who could be swayed by convincing evidence to the contrary.

However, my belief is that a majority of those who support the autism-mercury theory today will continue to do so no matter what evidence comes out that rebutts it. There are many people out there that still believe vaccines cause SIDS, for example, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

People contribute fair amounts of money (more than they contribute to SafeMinds or NAA, by the by) every year to the National Vaccine Information Center, an organization which is all but anti-vaccine. Those people will continue to be anti-vaccine regardless of whether "popular medicine" says otherwise. I believe it is not unreasonable to assume that there is a fair amount of overlap between contributors to the NVIC and contributors to groups like SafeMinds and NAA.

25 April, 2006 07:40  
Blogger María Luján said...

Anonimouse
Thank you very much for your answer. I understand your point.
You say
There are people who are proposing an autism-mercury link who legitimately look at this from a scientific perspective and haven't come to some sort of pre-ordained conclusion
I consider myself near- but not in this last group. I see vaccines/thimerosal/preservatives as an insult for autistic children, that is different.
What I have tried to present you is that for me every parent of a child with autism will have a personal different view of autism related to his/her personal complex situation and under this idea, generalization of any kind is unfair in this field.
Thank you again
María Luján

25 April, 2006 07:54  
Blogger MichaelBains said...

You tell an excellent story. It's great gravy that it's true.

11 May, 2006 15:50  

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