Autism Incidence Increased By Mercury Emissions
A paper published in the medical journal Health & Place found that children living next to a mercury polluter have a higher risk of developing autism. The research, from University of Texas Health Science Center (San Antonio), by researchers Raymond Palmer, PhD and colleagues, determined that a community's distance to a coal-fired powered plant, or other industrial mercury source, significantly predicts future autism rates in the community's schoolchildren.
The study, "Proximity to point sources of environmental mercury release as a predictor of autism prevalence," adds to growing evidence of mercury's role in autism causation. Dr. Palmer, joined by representatives from autism organizations SafeMinds and Autism United and Texas families affected by autism, commented on the findings' implications at a press conference in Dallas yesterday.
"These results are alarming," stated Theresa Wrangham, president of SafeMinds. "Any family living near a mercury polluter should be concerned. Mercury from all manmade sources needs to be eliminated immediately."
Human activities account for the vast majority of mercury exposure. Mercury, upon entering the environment, continues to circulate in and out of the atmosphere and is a persistent bio-accumulative toxin that does not break down into a less harmful substance. The study focused on coal-fired electric power plants, estimated by EPA to account for about 40% of current U.S. emissions, and industrial point sources including boilers, incinerators, and chlorine, cement and pulp/paper plants.
Mercury, a developmental toxin, is known to impair brain development and alter the immature immune system in unborn children and infants. "Scientists and the EPA have traditionally focused on fish consumption during pregnancy as the route of greatest concern," stated Ms. Wrangham. "Dr. Palmer's research suggests that we must look at additional mechanisms, like direct human exposures from air, water, and soil, both pre- and postnatally."
The EPA estimates that installing existing mercury control technology would achieve a 90% emission reduction at power plants and cost the average U.S. household $8.28-$25.68 per year. In contrast, a Harvard study found societal costs for autism are $35 billion per year, or $331.75 per household.
"Industry must make the green investments that provide a return on investment in children's health," said John Gilmore, president of Autism United. "Autism is a national health emergency affecting 1 in 150 children, and the effects are devastating."