Friday, October 26, 2012

Autism, Neoliberalism and the Environment

Two days ago I reported that the director of the UC Davis MInd Institute stated publicly that researchers he associates with are increasingly convinced that the rise in autism diagnoses reflects actual increases in the frequency of the disorder.

I believe that also and am convinced that environmental contaminants are the cause. However, I believe that environmental causes are not being fully examined because of the political implications. In particular, the neoliberal health paradigm that prevails responsibilizes individuals for their personal health management, while deflecting attention from systemic causes that might implicate market operations. Here is an excerpt from an essay I wrote examining these issues:

One important effect of current neoliberal approaches toward health research and management is the dis-investment in and symbolic marginalization of, environmental research on autism and related disorders. 
A recent research study publicized by Reuters found that children exposed to organophosphate pesticides have higher risks of ADHD (Reuters 2010). If these pesticides can be directly and positively correlated with ADHD, it seems probable they could just as likely be correlated with autism given many researchers see ADHD as part of the autism spectrum because of commonalities in executive function deficits (e.g., Corbett, Constantine, Hendren, Rocke and Ozonoff 2009).  
Indeed, Landrigan’s (2010) research suggests that a wide array of common environmental toxins could play a role in producing autism. Martha Herbert, a prominent researcher in the area of autism and environmental health, agrees; although, she is more optimistic about physiological interventions for children who have suffered environmentally induced injuries (personal correspondence). Yet, the U.S. approach to regulating chemicals remains lax despite growing evidence of chemical harms to human and animal life.
The Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai reports that only 20 percent of the more than 80,000 new chemicals produced since World War II have been tested for toxicity in children (Kristof 2009). In August of 2007 the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) published a report comparing the lax U.S. regulatory framework for chemicals with a recently enacted European framework, REACH. The GAO report (GAO-07-825) explains that under the current regulatory system in the U.S., companies do not have to develop information on the health or environmental impact of chemicals unless specifically required by EPA ruling. Consequently, the EPA relies on voluntary programs for gathering information from chemical companies in order to evaluate and regulate new chemicals under the provisions of 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) legislation.[i] The GAO report’s recommendation that the burden of risk be shifted to the chemical companies was not adopted by the George W. Bush Administration, even after former President Bush’s cancer panel found a strong link between environmental toxins and cancer (see Layton 2010b, The President’s Cancer Panel 2010). In 2010 a new regulation to overhaul the now outdated 1976 TSCA were introduced, but so far nothing has been passed (see Layton, 2010a; “Momentum” 2010).[ii]
Chemicals are not the only environmental factor that may be implicated in autism. Ionizing radiation has received almost no attention in the environmental research on autism, yet in my opinion there exists considerable likelihood that it may play a role in the disorder. Research has demonstrated that even low-doses of ionizing radiation can cause childhood leukemia (Little, Wakeford and Kendall 2009). Environmental researchers have pointed out that radiation risk-exposure standards are based on adult standards and children are a sensitive subpopulation whose biological vulnerabilities have not been properly assessed for risk-management standards (see Fucic, Brunborg, Lassan, Jezek et al. 2008; Preston 2004). Furthermore, natural killer (NK) cells that have been implicated as being deficient in children with autism (Enstrom 2008) are particularly susceptible to damage from ionizing radiation (Vokurkov√° et al. 2010). The nuclear power/weapons industry has been very successful in deflecting attention away from radiation as an environmental risk.
Two research centers study environmental factors and autism, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey/Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway and the University of California at Davis (“New Centers” 2002). However, efforts to regulate environmental factors implicated in human disease and disorders face formidable challenges from industry, ranging from industry science to corporate lobbyists (see McGarity and Wagner 2008). Epidemiological evidence that chemicals cause harm is often riddled with contingencies that offer fuel to the corporate science aimed at debunking environmental health research. Most importantly, contingency complicates efforts to calculate definite harms using financial logics and methodologies. Contingency calculates poorly within neoliberal economic calculi used for assessing risk when costs are involved. 
Neoliberalism is inherently biased toward protecting industry when regulation is at issue. Even when harms are established, opposition to environmental legislation typically overwhelms support. Business claims that environmental regulation will raise costs, or force industry to export production abroad, are powerful persuaders.
            The compelling body of research documenting environmental factors in producing autism is likely to be marginalized for the foreseeable future. The fiscal significance of autism may very well wane as public expenditures on health care and services for people with autism are cut as states slash funding. As risk shifts to individuals, government has fewer financial incentives for battling industry and enforcing commercially costly enhanced environmental regulations. In contrast, public dollars for university and commercial research on the genetic causes of autism will continue since this type of funding is represented as promoting bio-tech innovation and professional job creation. The same can be said for pharmaceutical development. Pharmaceuticals that manage autistic symptoms simultaneously provide cost-effective strategies for managing people with autism while also fulfilling the mantra of fostering innovation while promoting economic growth. Risperdal, that corpulent-zombie producing anti-psychotic, exemplifies the dangers of drugs that promise to ‘manage’ troubling autistic symptoms.

[i] Passed in 1969, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) initiated policy actions addressing biological and ecological impacts of synthetic environmental chemicals (Frickel 2006). NEPA mandated the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Council for Environmental Quality. NEPA requires an annual report on the state of the environment and environmental impact assessment using data collected from the EPA. The EPA was afforded additional regulatory authority with the passage of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which enabled the EPA to control chemicals known to pose unreasonable risks to human or environmental health.


  1. I experienced this first-hand at the kindergarten welcome at my daughter's public school this year. I was in charge of the art project, and the number of kids displaying symptoms of autism was striking and suggested a huge increase. I am not a professional, I just worked at a school for kids with autism when I was in college. Anecdotally, I saw a big increase over what I know to be the general percentage. I also believe that there is plenty of evidence that radiation is causing a lot of the increase: NoNukes on September 8, 2012 at 12:31 pm said:
    Evidence suggests that children with autism have more harmful intestinal bacteria that produce neurotoxins than control groups.

    There is evidence that children with autism have “a higher incidence of the Clostridium histolyticum group (Clostridium clusters I and II) of bacteria than that of healthy children.”

    Clostridium histolyticum produces a similar neurotoxin to Clostridium tetani, which causes the deadly disease tetanus.

    Is radiation not only destroying DNA, but also creating environments where toxic bacteria proliferate, and then continually release neurotoxins?
    Radiation Resistance of Spores of Clostridium Species In Aqueous Suspension Thanks, Majia, Nonukes

  2. Thank you for the data and cites NoNukes

    I think the argument makes sense that radiation and other mutagens will weaken immune systems, rendering animals/people vulnerable to secondary assaults:

    As in the fungus growth in bees and bats

    As in fungal and other infections within people