13 Feb

Student journalists; the autism epidemic is your generation’s story to tell

by Steven HiggsFebruary 13, 2011

I found myself on the other side of the journalistic equation this past week, when the Indiana Daily Student published a front-page story (or see below) about my work on autism and the environment, including links between vaccines and the pervasive developmental disorder.

The story drew the expected shrill and vitriolic reaction from vaccine industry defenders, none of whom identify themselves by name. The comments section attracted more than three dozen responses from some of the highest (and lowest) profile actors in the national debate. What follows is my response to the fallout.

‘Autism and the Indiana Environment Blog’ 

I would add my voice to those congratulating the Indiana Daily Student for tackling this complex and important subject. And I would urge the editors there and everywhere to stay on it, to pay less attention to sports and more to the critical issues facing their generation, like children’s environmental health. I wrote my first story about toxic chemicals as a grad student in Ernie Pyle Hall three decades ago next semester. And I am here to tell you this is the great, untold story of your generation.
“You have lived your entire lives under the Reagan Revolution philosophy that toxic chemicals aren’t really so bad, that protecting you from them isn’t all that necessary.”

“You have lived your entire lives under the Reagan Revolution philosophy that toxic chemicals aren’t really so bad, that protecting you from them isn’t all that necessary.”You have lived your entire lives under the Reagan Revolution philosophy that toxic chemicals aren’t really so bad, that protecting you from them isn’t all that necessary. Eighty thousand toxins approved by EPA for release into the environment every year? No problem. Study them? Not necessary.

That is your unfortunate legacy from my generation, the Earth Day generation.

A quarter century after Reaganism opened the floodgates for toxic chemicals to flow into your air, water, land and bodies, a 2005 study by the Environmental Working Group found an average of 200 toxins in the placentas of babies randomly selected nationwide by the Red Cross.

Here in Indiana, our state departments of environmental management, health and natural resources say fish caught in state waters are so contaminated with mercury and PCBs that women who are pregnant, breast feeding or thinking about getting pregnant shouldn’t eat them.

That’s you and your friends and your families. Unless you want to put your babies at risk, don’t eat the fish in Indiana.

In 1986, a bipartisan Congress indemnified vaccine manufacturers against any harm their vaccines might cause, and in 1988 the types and numbers of shots kids receive began an unprecedented climb. When Reagan left office at the end of 1988, American kids got 11 vaccine shots by the time they started school. Today’s schedule calls for 19 in the first six months of life, more than 30 before starting school, far more than any other industrial country in the world.
Many, not all, but many contained mercury, the most caustic neurotoxin known to science. The process of mercury destroying a neuron is captured in this University of Calgary video.

How Mercury Produces Brain DamageFor more amazing video clips, click here

After a decade of injecting nearly every child in America with massive amounts of mercury, those responsible — government, medical and pharmaceutical interests — in the late 1990s announced plans to voluntarily remove mercury from as many vaccines as possible, as soon as possible. They called it a “precaution.”

A recent review of worldwide studies of autism rates by EPA researchers dated the beginning of the autism epidemic to 1988-89, literally the moment the vaccine schedule began its acceleration.

Those who have attacked the IDS story would have you believe this is pure coincidence, that there is no connection between infant exposure to mercury in vaccines and the onset of the autism/developmental disabilities epidemic in American children.

If you examine the trend lines in Indiana for special education and find, like I did, a direct correlation between special ed enrollment spikes and the introductions of new “well-baby shots,” they will have you believe that is likewise coincidence.

It’s also random chance, they say, that Indiana special ed rates peaked at 17.9 percent during the 2005-06 school year and began dropping the next, precisely when kids with reduced mercury exposure from vaccines started school. According to Indiana Department of Education data, the rate was 17.5 percent in 2008-09, the last year I have collected data for.

Let’s be clear, guys. Autism is the condition du jour, and it is a tragedy. But it is just one piece of a much larger epidemic of developmental disabilities your generation must live with and pay for. The vast majority of kids receive special education because they cannot learn, behave or communicate well enough to receive public classroom education. In Indiana, autism ranks No. 5 on the list.

Any journalist who seriously explores this issue will find the “spectrum” of conditions afflicting children and their loved ones is mind-numbing.

And these conditions are costly, emotionally and economically. The U.S. Vaccine Court in Washington, D.C., recently awarded $21 million to the family of a young girl for vaccine-induced autism. That’s what they say a lifetime of care will cost.

Yes, a federal court, created specifically to protect vaccine manufacturers, says vaccines can cause autism. It’s ruled so twice now.

And a new review of autism studies published in the Journal of Immunotoxicology concluded: “Documented causes of autism include genetic mutations and/or deletions, viral infections, and encephalitis following vaccination.”

Your detractors have the audacity to say a connection between vaccines and autism has been “debunked,” and they say you — as journalists or parents — shouldn’t even explore the subject. Parents who watched their children regress into autism in direct response to vaccines — 10s of thousands of them — beg to differ.

I’ve engaged all sides of this debate, at the highest levels of both sides, and can tell you the parents are just as smart as the experts, and in many cases, I hate to say, more trustworthy.

Sadly, your generation has few journalistic role models to emulate in this quest to seek the truth about the connections between autism and environmental toxins like mercury. They have been missing in action, unwilling to ask the questions and demand the answers your generation needs to act with intelligence and forethought.
The “news media” treat this issue as just another narrative, to be breathlessly updated only when something dramatic happens, like the vaccine-industrial complex’s never-ending crucifixion of Dr. Andrew Wakefield.

Please do not take your cues from them. Be journalists, not echo chambers for the expert and powerful.

If not you, who will ask questions like, “Should babies be vaccinated at birth against hepatitis B to protect them from the chance that their mothers had random sex or used dirty needles in the last few weeks of their pregnancies?”

Who should decide if a baby receives that shot? Fully informed parents or the vaccine-industrial complex

My journalistic exploration of children’s environmental health began in the late 1990s when I discovered a quote from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s Dr. Philip Landrigan about the dearth of knowledge we have on those 80,000 chemicals in our environment:

“We are engaged in a massive, toxicological experiment, with our children and our children’s as the experimental subjects.”

That’s you he’s talking about.

As a journalist, my focus has been on the Ohio River Valley in Indiana, where, in addition to receiving mercury in vaccines, kids live in an environment where it literally rains on their heads. One in five of those kids receive special education. In places it’s one in four.

I am convinced that mercury — but one of those 200 chemicals in your mothers’ placentas — is one among many causes of developmental disability, and its presence in vaccines is the largest single contributor to the disabilities epidemic that afflicts your generation.

Mine, however, is but one version of the truth, as the IDS story comments clearly show. As professional journalists — your generation’s watchdogs — it’s your duty to find yours.

Steven Higgs can be reached at


Indiana Daily Student –

Ind. air pollutants might cause autism

By Michelle Sokol | IDS | February 09, 2011
Jacob Perry was already 18 months old when he learned to say “Mommy,” “Daddy” and “cat.” By 19 months, his language had regressed drastically.

Jacob’s mother, Jennifer Perry, said it is no coincidence that he lost his language skills after receiving his MMR vaccine, an immunization shot against measles, mumps and rubella.

Now, seven years later, Jacob is living with autism.

Perry said she does not blame the vaccine for her son’s diagnosis, but she said she believes it agitated a pre-existing condition.

By Jacob’s first birthday, Perry said she noticed many signs that triggered her initial concern. She began research on Jacob’s symptoms and remembers sobbing when she found they corresponded to autism.

Despite Perry’s concerns, no doctor would diagnose her son before the age of 3.

Medical experts now aim to diagnose autism within the first 18 months to provide early intervention and a better chance of treatment. And the number of children they are diagnosing is on the rise.

A study by the Thoughtful House Center for Children, a nonprofit organization that researches developmental disorders, claims the number of children living with autism has risen from 15,580 in 1992 to 333,234 in 2009.

Some have stated this increase is due to improved diagnosing and reporting methods rather than an increase in frequency.

Steven Higgs, editor of the Bloomington Alternative and adjunct lecturer for the IU School of Journalism, has been blogging about his research on the topic for the past two years.

“The first time I read a study in the Lancet that one out of six children have a developmental disability, it didn’t register in my mind,” Higgs said. “It was a surreal experience. It’s a phenomenal number.”

The number piqued Higgs’s interest. He then started looking at other statistics within Indiana and discovered that one out of five children in the Ohio River Valley area has a disability that qualifies them for special education.

Higgs said he accepts that autism is caused by a number of factors, including genetic predisposition, but he cannot deny that environmental toxins are to blame for the rise in autism — especially in a region so polluted by coal plants.

“I don’t know of any instance in history where so many people have been exposed to toxic chemicals,” Higgs said. “There’s a whole generation of children exposed to mercury in the environment and in vaccines.”

Higgs said mercury is the most studied of the toxic elements that come in contact with humans.

The autism research group Generation Rescue is one of several that attribute autism to mercury poisoning. Yet the chemical is still administered in vaccines and emitted into the atmosphere by coal plants.

“Not every child can drink milk,” Higgs said. “And not every child can handle massive amounts of mercury in their systems.”

Cathy Pratt, director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, said she is not sure how accurate any of the studies linking autism and environmental pollution are. 

“There are multiple reasons autism occurs,” Pratt said. “Environmental issues is certainly one of them, but there needs to be more research.”

Pratt, being a part of the autistic community, has heard many parents of autistic children claim that vaccines worsened their children’s disability. She said no one has ever recommended skipping the vaccine.

After Perry saw the MMR vaccine’s effect on her son, she said she began to question how the vaccines are administered.

“When Jacob was vaccinated, I didn’t even question it,” Perry said. “I didn’t realize he had already gotten his first immunization while we were still in the hospital.”

Perry said parents are more knowledgeable about the vaccines now and have more resources available to them.

She said the vaccines should be administered, but it is a matter of getting the timing right.

Higgs said doctors are instructed to avoid speaking about vaccinations and autism


“Nobody is saying ‘Don’t vaccinate your children,’” Higgs said. “But vaccinate on a basis of informed consent.”

While Higgs said he is worried about mercury, a chemical that accumulates faster than it decays in the body, he said a bigger concern is the chemicals that are not studied.

“There are 80,000 toxic chemicals the EPA allows industry to release into the environment every single day,” Higgs said. “Almost none of them have been tested for anything. Some have been tested for cancer, some have been tested for birth defects, but there is no way to say definitively how these chemicals affect us individually.”

Higgs said until researchers begin to examine the link between autism and the environment there is no hope for the situation to improve, especially considering Gov. Mitch Daniels’ plans for more coal plants.

Perry said there is no reason to deny the link and avoid further investigation.

“Until something big happens really close to here, it’s really easy to say ‘So what?’ if you’re not personally affected,” Perry said. 


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We have gone mad: vaccinating newborns for Hepatitis. The way the medical establishment has dealt with the epidemic of autism in our children will be recorded as one of its most arrogant and disastrous failures.

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