…But this study is compelling in showing an association between mercury exposure and autism rates, and scientists can not just ignore it under the basis of its imperfect design and inability to make causal links – if that is the case, then only carefully controlled laboratory studies, with poor external validity, should be published and accepted as contributors to our greater scientific knowledge.

A review of: PALMER, R., BLANCHARD, S., WOOD, R. (2008). Proximity to point sources of environmental mercury release as a predictor of autism prevalence. Health & Place DOI: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2008.02.001

This fascinating, yet bound to be controversial, study hit the news yesterday as it was made available (pre-publication) by the Journal Health & Place. The study is simple, straightforward, elegant, with some powerful findings. In fact, the findings are somewhat daunting given the simplicity of the design. The researchers reviewed the amount of mercury release reported by industrial facilities and power plants in the State of Texas in 1997 from data provided by US Environmental Protection Agency Toxics Release Inventory. They compared these data against autism rates in 1997 and 2002 as measured by schools’ autism classifications provided by the Texas Education Agency. Using a specialized geographical analysis system, the authors were able to locate each source of mercury and calculate the distance between each mercury source and each school. The results:

Industrial release of mercury and distance to industrial sources independently predicted increased rates of autism. The association with industrial release of mercury was not linear, instead the statistical model fit suggested an accelerated risk. This association remained statistically significant after controlling for specific variables such as SES, urbanicity, and race.

Power plant release of mercury and distance to power plant independently predicted increased rates of autism. In this case the association was linear (not accelerated). Again, this association remained statistically significant after controlling for other variables.

It is easy to dismiss these findings as inconsequential because they are ‘correlational’ in nature, or do not really prove anything. Researchers are too often guilty of selective acceptance of research: those studies that fit the consensus are accepted while those that don’t are dismissed for their methodological flaws – even though the studies we accept are equally flawed.

In the spirit of fairness I have to say that these findings are strong. Their methodology and analytical process are not any different from what is commonly seen in social science or epidemiology research. Is it perfect? Far from it. Is it useful or informative? Definitively! The data speak very clearly: In Texas, mercury release from industrial sources and power plants in 1997, and school proximity to these sources, are associated with rates of autism in 2002 as measured by school special education classifications.

Does this mean that mercury causes autism? Not at all. In the last sentence of the previous paragraph you can not replace the words are associated with with the word cause. There is a major difference. The data, albeit strong, have limitations. For example, the most obvious (to me) alternative explanation is that mercury release and proximity to these sources is also associated with another mystery factor that is causing this apparent association and that in fact, mercury release has nothing to do with autism rates in 2002. Let’s hypothesize that these power plants and industrial sources also release another toxin – let’s call this toxin autisimic (this is a made up toxin). These sources release mercury and autisimic at the same rate, so for each pound of mercury released there is a pound of autisimic released. It is possible then that this autisimic toxin directly increases the risk for autism, and this could explain completely the strong (but now obviously inaccurate) association between mercury release and autism.

Does this study show that vaccines cause autism? Absolutely not. I know this question may sound ludicrous to some, but I pose it rhetorically because I am certain that some will make the wide leap and link these findings to the vaccine issue.

There are other problems and limitations with this study, such as how autism rates were calculated (using all children instead of only those born inor after 1997), whether the autism rates are truly climbing and not explained by other factors, whether there are other variables that could be explaining this relation, etc, etc — and yes, this study does not prove or directly indicate that autism is caused by mercury exposure (click here for a much more critical review of this study). But this study is compelling in showing an association between mercury exposure and autism rates, and scientists can not just ignore it under the basis of its imperfect design and inability to make causal links – if that is the case, then only carefully controlled laboratory studies, with poor external validity, should be published and accepted as contributors to our greater scientific knowledge. This is study is far, far, from perfect, and many changes should have been requested prior to publication, but I can say the same of 90% of what is published today.

ResearchBlogging.org

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