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Cell phones and cancer again, or: Oh, no! My cell phone’s going to give me cancer!

Before I start into the meat of this post, I feel the need to emphasize, as strongly as I can, four things:

  1. I do not receive any funding from the telecommunications industry in general, or wireless phone companies in particular. None at all. In other words, I’m not in the pocket of “big mobile” any more than I am in the pocket of big pharma.
  2. I don’t own any stock in telecommunications companies, other than as parts of mutual funds in which my retirement funds are invested that purchase shares in many, many different companies, some of which may or may not be telecommunications companies. (I should probably go and look at the list.)
  3. None of my friends or family work for cell phone companies.
  4. I don’t have a dog in this hunt. I really don’t.

I say this because these are the most common accusations I hear whenever I venture into this particular topic area, and I thought I’d just clear that up right away in order (hopefully) to preempt any similar comments after this post. Indeed, one of the favorite retorts to anyone who criticizes fearmongering about cell phones is to try to insinuate that that person is only doing so because he or she is in the pocket of industry, and I’ve been at the receiving end of such claims. Unfortunately, I’m sure someone will probably show his or her lack of reading comprehension and post one of those very criticisms of me. It’s almost inevitable. Even though posting such disclaimers never works against the “pharma shill” gambit when I write about vaccines or dubious cancer cures, nonetheless hope springs eternal.

Now that that obligatory unpleasantness is out of the way, let me move on to say that I’m very puzzled about something that happened last week.

I know that being puzzled isn’t particularly unusual for me. Indeed, I’m frequently puzzled about a great many things. I can’t figure out how, for example, anyone with the slightest bit of reason or critical thinking ability can believe that homeopathy is anything other than water treated with, in essence, magical spells accompanied by shaking or do anything other than laugh when informed what homeopathy really is and how it supposedly “works.” I can’t figure out how anyone can look at the mass of interlocking evidence from multiple different scientific specialties supporting evolution and reject still reject one of the most powerful scientific theories ever to spring from the human mind, deciding instead that creationism or its bastard offspring, “intelligent design” creationism is anything more than pure religion or rank religion-inspired pseudoscience. I can’t figure out why American Idol or Survivor is so amazingly popular.

And I can’t figure out why on earth the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Center released this warning about cell phones last week:

PITTSBURGH July 24, 2008, 07:13 am ET · The head of a prominent cancer research institute issued an unprecedented warning to his faculty and staff Wednesday: Limit cell phone use because of the possible risk of cancer.

The warning from Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, is contrary to numerous studies that don’t find a link between cancer and cell phone use, and a public lack of worry by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Herberman is basing his alarm on early unpublished data. He says it takes too long to get answers from science and he believes people should take action now — especially when it comes to children.

“Really at the heart of my concern is that we shouldn’t wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later,” Herberman said.

Dr. Herberman is a highly respected cancer center director whom I’ve in general thought well of, and the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute is a highly respected cancer center. I know a few people there, and in the past I’ve worked closely with two surgeons who trained there. One in particular remains my collaborator, even though I’ve moved on from the institution where we were once partners.

That’s why I can’t help but wonder just what on earth Dr. Herberman was smoking when he decided to issue this warning, given my general respect for the University of Pittsburgh to the point where I once even tried to land a faculty position there. His announcement strikes me as being rash in the extreme, especially given that its text even admits outright that the published data at present do not appear to support a link between cell phone use and brain tumors. Consequently, I conclude that this is alarmism that, I suspect, even a prominent blogger known to be somewhat receptive to the claim that cell phones cause brain tumors (Revere) would have a hard time supporting, because it goes far beyond the published evidence and is based on “early unpublished data.” Scaring the nation based on “early unpublished data” that can’t be examined by the entire medical and scientific community is generally not a good idea. That’s why I’ve been asking over the last few days: Why on earth did Dr. Herberman do it?
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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Autism and Vaccines: Responding to Poling and Kirby

In response to my NeuroLogica blog post on Monday, David Kirby wrote a response in the Huffington Post and Dr. Jon Poling (father of Hannah Poling) wrote an open letter to me, placed in the comment section and posted at Age of Autism. It seems only polite that I respond to their kind attention.The primary focus of my original post (which I further developed yesterday) was that the media is focusing too much attention on what celebrities and politicians are saying about the controversy surrounding the discredited notion that vaccines are a significant cause of autism. Over the past year Jenny McCarthy (now joined by her boyfriend Jim Carrey) has become the major spokesperson for a movement that, at its core, is anti-vaccine and is dedicated to the scientific opinion that vaccines are toxic and cause autism. Recently actress Amanda Peet joined the fray, professing her belief that vaccines are safe, are not associated with autism, and that parents who do not vaccinate their children are “parasites” for depending on other parents who do. (She later apologized for that remark, calling it “divisive”.)

While I appreciate Amanda Peet’s support, I feel strongly that scientific questions should be handled by the scientific community. Celebrities are great when they support causes – but when they second guess the scientific community and decide to advocate for their own scientific conclusions, they are more likely to cause harm than good. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Vaccines

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Politics and Science at the HHS

When politics and science collide, shenanigans are likely to ensue. Politics is often antithetical to science because the former is about persuasion and value judgments while the latter is about objectivity and transparency. Science cannot function properly under the yoke of political ideology.

The infiltration of unscientific and anti-scientific practices and ideas into mainstream medicine is primarily an act of politics and ideology trumping science. The latest example of this comes from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) who put out a press release on June 16th declaring that: “HHS Secretary and Chinese Minister of Health Sign Memorandum of Understanding on Traditional Chinese Medicine Research.” The press release states:

“Many Americans incorporate alternative medical practices into their personal health care and are interested in the potential of a variety of traditional Chinese medicine approaches,” Secretary Leavitt said. “This project will advance our understanding of when and how to appropriately integrate traditional Chinese medicine with Western medical approaches to improve the health of the American and Chinese people.”

This statement is so common among the political apologists for unscientific medicine that is has become almost a cliche. The first claim in Secretary Leavitt’s statement is that “Many Americans incorporate alternative medical practices into their personal health care…” This is misleading and irrelevant. The primary problem is with the use of the term “alternative medicine” without providing any kind of definition. This is a false category because the modalities that are generally included in so-called CAM do not necessarily have anything in common except for the fact that they lack adequate scientific justification to be considered part of mainstream medicine. That is, except for those treatments that CAM proponents sneak into this category to misleadingly inflate its apparent size and impact – like exercise, nutrition, physical therapy, etc. These modalities can be scientific (depending upon how they are applied) and have no place under the CAM umbrella.

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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Why the latest Geier & Geier paper is not evidence that mercury in vaccines causes autism

Several people have been sending me either links to this paper or even the paper itself:

Young HA, Geier DA, Geier MR. (2008). Thimerosal exposure in infants and neurodevelopmental disorders: An assessment of computerized medical records in the Vaccine Safety Datalink. J Neurol Sci. 2008 May 14 [Epub ahead of print]. (Full text here.)

A few have asked me whether I was planning on deconstructing this study, given that antivaccinationists have apparently been promoting it as “evidence” that it really, truly, and honestly was the mercury in vaccines after all that caused autism. In actuality, I really didn’t feel the need to bother to do a full deconstruction because a new blogger called EpiWonk did a three part take-down that eviscerated this latest bit of “science” from Geier père et fils so thoroughly and with a much greater knowledge of epidemiology than I could ever muster, that I saw no need. Add to that a four-part takedown on the Pathophilia blog, and there was really no need for me to write a detailed deconstruction of my own. Unfortunately, since this study appears to be rearing its ugly head again and again in the blogosphere, I think it’s worth directing you to these discussions. I had been meaning to to this anyway, but had gotten side-tracked by numerous other topics. To make up for my lapse, here we go:

  1. New Study on Thimerosal and Neurodevelopmental Disorders: I. Scientific Fraud or Just Playing with Data?
  2. New Study on Thimerosal and Neurodevelopmental Disorders: II. What Happened to Control for Confounding?
  3. New Study on Thimerosal and Neurodevelopmental Disorders: III. Group-Level Units of Analysis and the Ecological Fallacy

Meanwhile, the Pathophilia blog also has a multi-part deconstruction of the latest Geier study from a different viewpoint:

  1. IRB Approval of Geier Autism Study: Yes or No?
  2. I’ve Been Sucked Into the Thimerosal-Autism-Geier Vortex
  3. Young-Geier Autism Study: What the—? (Part 1)
  4. Young-Geier Autism Study: What the—? (Part 2)
  5. Young-Geier Autism Study: What the—? (Part 3)
  6. Young-Geier Autism Study: What the—? (Part 4)

Ow! That’s gonna leave a mark!
Enjoy! And the next time an antivaccinationist points to this particular study, send ‘em over to see EpiWonk and Pathophilia.

Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and “Green Our Vaccines”: Anti-vaccine, not “pro-safe vaccine”

Jenny McCarthy & Jim Carrey at Green Our Vaccines

Last week, there was a rally in Washington, D.C. How many people actually attended the rally is uncertain. The organizers themselves claim that 8,500 people attended, while more objective estimates from people not associated with the march put the number at probably less than 1,000. Of course, such wide variations in estimates for the attendance at such events are not uncommon. For my purposes it is irrelevant whether 500 or 8,000 attended because even if the lowest estimate is closer to the true number this march represented the largest march on Washington ever for this particular cause, the previous largest having occurred three years ago.

Fortunately for public health interests, the organizers’ timing was very bad (for them, at least) in that they marched last Wednesday, the very day after Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination. The media were rife with coverage of the history-making nomination of the first African-American as a nominee of a major party, as well as speculation about when and whether Hillary Clinton would concede and endorse Obama. Drowning out most other news, Obama’s nomination led to almost nonexistent news coverage of the rally, aside from a handful of television appearances by one of its celebrity organizers. Its relative lack of success notwithstanding, however, all who support science- and evidence-based medicine should nonetheless remain concerned about this rally, because it was a dagger aimed at the heart of the most effective public health innovation ever conceived by the human mind, an intervention that has arguably saved more lives over the course of human history than every other medical intervention combined. That this dagger turned out to be a toothpick is fortunate indeed but by no means a reason to dismiss the movement that spawned it as irrelevant.

I’m referring, of course, to the antivaccinationist movement, and the rally was known as the “Green Our Vaccines” rally, led by the celebrity couple Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey and organized and funded by Talk About Curing Autism (TACA), Generation Rescue (upon whose board McCarthy now sits), and a panoply of other groups that promulgate the myth that either vaccines containing mercury in the form of their thimerosal preservative or vaccines themselves cause autism.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Early detection of cancer, part 2: Breast cancer and MRI

Note: If you haven’t already, you should read PART 1 of this two-part series. It defines several terms that I will be using in this post, and I don’t plan on explaining them again, given that they were explained in detail in Part 1. Of course, if you’re a medical professional and already know what lead time bias, length bias, and stage migration are, then it goes without saying that you should still read Part 1 for its scintillating prose.

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen last I left this topic three weeks ago, I had discussed why detecting cancer at ever-earlier stages and ever-smaller sizes is not necessarily an unalloyed good. At that time, I discussed in detail a landmark commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled, Advances in Diagnostic Imaging and Overestimations of Disease Prevalence and the Benefits of Therapy. The article, although nearly 15 years old, rings just as true today in its cautioning doctors about whether ever-increasing diagnostic sensitivity that imaging technology and new blood tests were (and are) providing was actually helping patients as much as we thought it was. Before we dive into this problem as applied to breast cancer, let’s review what Drs. Black and Welch had to say about screening tests for breast cancer 15 years ago, as way of background and linking my last post and this one:

Before the widespread use of mammography, most breast cancers were discovered on physical examination, as palpable lumps. In one of the few studies to assess directly the accuracy of physical examination in screening for breast cancer, only 27 percent of tumors more than 1.0 cm in diameter and 10 percent of those less than 1.0 cm in diameter were detected by physical examination. However, the mean size of breast cancers detected by state-of-the-art screening mammography is about 1.0 cm, and many of the cancers detected as microcalcifications are only a few millimeters in size.

Again, prevalence depends on the degree of scrutiny. According to the Connecticut Tumor Registry, clinically apparent breast cancer afflicts about 1 percent of all women between the ages of 40 and 50 years. In a recent medicolegal autopsy study, however, small foci of breast cancer were found in 39 percent of women in this age group. Most cancers were in the form of ductal carcinoma in situ. Furthermore, over 45 percent of the women with cancer had two or more lesions, and over 40 percent had bilateral lesions. Although it has been argued that such small in situ lesions are not detected by and are therefore irrelevant to screening mammography, about half the lesions in that study were detected, usually as microcalcifications, on postmortem plain-film radiography of the resected breasts. Because of continual technical improvements and increasingly broad criteria for the interpretation of mammograms, the detection threshold for breast cancer has fallen considerably since the time of the Breast Cancer Screening Project of the Health Insurance Plan of Greater New York (1963 to 1975). This can explain the increased prevalence of cancer on mammographic screening, from 2.717 to 7.614 per 1000 examinations (with the incidence increasing from 1.517 to 3.214 per 1000 examinations). The lower detection threshold can also explain the increase in the percentage of carcinomas in situ (stage 0) among all mammographically detected cancers — from 12.7 percent to over 30 percent. The principal indication for biopsy has changed from suspicious mass to suspicious microcalcifications. This can explain why the reported incidence of breast cancer has increased and why most of the increase is in smaller lesions, particularly ductal carcinoma in situ.

About a year ago, three major articles hit the medical press that made me start thinking about this more than I had in the past. It’s my job, after all, because breast cancer surgery is a large part of my practice, and I do breast cancer lab-based research. What also tweaked me not to put off doing part 2 of this series is that, just two days ago, there was an abstract presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology Meeting (where I still am today) that also serves to highlight just how difficult this question of integrating a test as sensitive as MRI into a screening regimen for and preoperative evaluation of breast cancer is and how MRI should fit into in this regimen can be.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Surgical Procedures

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The Media and Vaccines

As the name of this blog makes clear, the authors believe that the public is best served when the institutions of medicine and health care are science-based. The basis of medicine has many levels and institutions in our society. They include not only the practitioners of medicine, but hospitals, medical schools and other academic institutions, government and regulatory agencies, industry, insurance companies, the legal system, media, and (last but not least) the public. Defending science-based medicine requires advocacy at every level.

Arguably, the acceptance of science-based medicine at all levels is influenced greatly by public opinion (too much, in my opinion, as a profession, almost by definition, should rise above the lowest common denominator of public opinion), and public opinion is influenced greatly by the mainstream media. There is one issue, however, for which public opinion has a direct and measurable effect on the efficacy of a medical intervention and that is the vaccination program. Therefore we pay particular interest to how the media deals with the issue of vaccines, especially the recent false controversy over an alleged link between vaccines and autism.

It is my observation (and also supported by a recent study) that the quality of mainstream science reporting has been generally low, attributed to the scaling back of dedicated science journalists. On this issue I have found the reporting to be mixed, with both good and bad examples, but with the highest quality outlets generally getting the story right. This week Time magazine’s cover story is The Truth About Vaccines by Alice Park. The article is excellent – it covers the controversy without pandering and without pretending that there is more of a scientific controversy than there is. She states quite succinctly that the evidence has been evaluated by scientific organizations and there simply is no credible evidence for a link between autism and vaccines.

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Posted in: Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Monkey business in autism research

NOTE: I had originally planned on posting Part II of a series on cancer screening. However, something came up on Friday that, in my estimation, requires a timely response. I should also inform readers that, because next Monday is a holiday here in the U.S., I haven’t yet decided whether I will be doing a post next week or not. Stay tuned and check back.

I get e-mail.

Sometimes the e-mail is supportive. Other times, as you might imagine, given some of my posts, it is anything but. On Friday afternoon, I happened to notice an e-mail from an “admirer” of mine that said something like this:

You are a complete jack-ass.

- Generation Rescue

Appended to the e-mail was a link to this article on the Age of Autism blog.

Generation Rescue, as you may recall, is an organization that promotes the idea that vaccines cause autism, and this e-mail almost certainly came from the founder and head of GR, a man named J.B. Handley. In case you don’t know who he is, Handley is a man who is, even by the standards of antivaccinationists, incredibly boorish and possessed of a bull-in-a-china shop manner that alienates even some potentially sympathetic people, although parents who believe that vaccines cause autism seem to love him. He is also quite–shall we say?–flexible in his notions of how vaccines cause autism. Until about a year ago, the Generation website stated unequivocally:

Generation Rescue believes that childhood neurological disorders such as autism, Asperger’s, ADHD/ADD, speech delay, sensory integration disorder, and many other developmental delays are all misdiagnoses for mercury poisoning.

About a year ago, it changed to:

We believe these neurological disorders (“NDs”) are environmental illnesses caused by an overload of heavy metals, live viruses, and bacteria. Proper treatment of our children, known as “biomedical intervention”, is leading to recovery for thousands.

The cause of this epidemic of NDs is extremely controversial. We believe the primary causes include the tripling of vaccines given to children in the last 15 years (mercury, aluminum and live viruses); maternal toxic load and prenatal vaccines; heavy metals like mercury in our air, water, and food; and the overuse of antibiotics.

The kind interpretation is that GR was changing its hypothesis given that the data being published consistently and strongly refuted the myth that mercury in vaccines somehow cause autism. In reality, though, it’s fairly clear that GR was pivoting effortlessly to a hypothesis that not only was nearly completely unfalsifiable but also allowed GR to continue to blame vaccines for autism, which is what it’s really about. More recently, as I have pointed out before, antivaccinationist rhetoric has also pivoted even further and equally as effortlessly to blame unspecified “toxins” or “combinations of toxins” in vaccines. Be that as it may, having felt the love, I have to admit that Mr. Handley sure does know how to charm a guy. When he draws my attention to some abstracts so politely, abstracts that he clearly considers to be very important evidence, how can I refuse to take a look? After all, Mr. Handley himself apparently very much wanted to point me in the direction of these three abstracts, and it would be downright churlish of me to deny him and refuse to look at the studies with as open a mind as possible.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Medical Academia, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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The early detection of cancer and improved survival: More complicated than most people think

“Early detection of cancer saves lives.”

How many times have you heard this statement or something resembling it? It’s a common assumption (indeed, a seemingly common sense assumption) that detecting cancer early is always a good thing. Why wouldn’t it always be a good thing, after all? For many cancers, such as breast cancer and colon cancer, there’s little doubt tha early detection at the very least makes the job of treating the cancer easier. Also, the cancer is detected at an earlier stage almost by definition. But does earlier detection save lives? This question, as you might expect, depends upon the tumor, its biology, and the quality and cost of the screening modality used to detect the cancer. Indeed, it turns out that the question of whether early detection saves lives is a much more complicated question to answer than you probably think, a question that even many doctors have trouble with. It’s also a question that can be argued too far in the other direction. In other words, in the same way that boosters of early detection of various cancers may sometimes oversell the benefits of early detection, there is a contingent that takes a somewhat nihilistic view of the value of screening and argues that it doesn’t save lives.

A corrollary of the latter point is that some boosters of so-called “alternative” medicine take the complexity of evaluating the effect of early screening on cancer mortality and the known trend towards diagnosing earlier and earlier stage tumors as saying that our treatments for cancer are mostly worthless and that the only reason we are apparently doing better against cancer is because of early diagnosis of lesions that would never progress. Here is a typical such comment from a frequent commenter whose hyperbolic style will likely be immediately recognizable to regular readers here:

Most cancer goes away, or never progresses, even with NO medical treatment. Most people who get cancer never know it. At least in the past, before early diagnosis they never knew it.

Now many people are diagnosed and treated, and they never get sick or die from cancer. But this would have also been the case if they were never diagnosed or treated.

Maybe early diagnosis and treatment do save the lives of a small percentage of all who are treated. Maybe not. We don’t know.

As is so often the case with such simplistic black and white statements, there is a grain of truth buried under the absolutist statement but it’s buried so deep that it’s well-nigh unrecognizable. Because we see this sort of statement frequently, I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss some of the issues that make the reduction of mortality from cancer so difficult to achieve through screening. I will do this in two parts, although the next part may not necessarily appear next week
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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants and autism: Is there a correlation?

ResearchBlogging.orgOn April 30, outside the courthouse in Dallas, a press conference/rally was held. This particular rally was in response to a new study published by a group led by Dr. Raymond F. Palmer in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, whose conclusion was that autism prevalence correlates strongly with proximity to mercury-emitting coal-burning power plants and other industrial sources of airborne mercury, the implication being that such sources of mercury may be causal or contributory to the development of autism. Unfortunately, the rally was reported by the media as though this study were slam dunk evidence that mercury environmental mercury is a definite contributor to the development of autism. For example, there is some video (also here) from local news sources of the rally, in the first of which it is stated as fact that mercury caused autism in the child featured in the story and in the second of which a mother who thinks that mercury causes autism is quoted credulously. This study has had much less play in the national news, but antivaccination activists, such as the ones at the Age of Autism website, a site whose main theme is that either mercury in the thimerosal preservative that used to be in childhood vaccines before 2002 or vaccines themselves cause autism, both promoted the rally and posted a glowing and credulous take on the study, as did “alternative medicine” and antivaccinationist website NaturalNews.com.

My first thought upon reading of this is that it is yet more vindication of the science showing that the claim that mercury in thimerosal-containing vaccines is a failed hypothesis. After all, as I have predicted time and time again, as the scientific and epidemiological evidence continued to mount that thimerosal is just plain not associated with autism or autism spectrum disorders, even the most diehard adherents to this belief are starting to realize that they were backing a losing horse, especially since thimerosal was removed from all childhood vaccines other than the flu vaccine in 2001, leaving only trace amounts from the manufacturing process and there is no sign that autism prevalence is falling. That’s why lately, their effort has shifted from primarily demonizing mercury to blaming other “toxins” in vaccines, even to the point that their efforts to demonize some ingredient–any ingredient–in vaccines often reaches ridiculous levels of blatant silliness, such as touting sucrose as one of those “toxins.” Indeed, I was puzzled. If environmental mercury is the new cause of autism, then the rationale antivaccinationists use to demonize vaccines and portray their children as “vaccine-damaged” is much less potent. Why on earth would they tout this study, which, even if a good study (and it’s not), would weaken their arguments against vaccines immeasurably and take power away from their whole new propaganda slogan “Green Our Vaccines”? The only reason I could think of is that perhaps they somehow think that if mercury in the environment can be linked to autism that maybe–just maybe–they can convince people that they were right about mercury in vaccines all along. Indeed, this seems to be the sort of tack that David Kirby took a year ago when he started arguing that mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants in China (which do reach California), coupled with mercury emission from crematoria in which cadavers with mercury fillings were burned, were contributing to the continued increase in the autism caseload in California despite the elimination of thimerosal in 2001.

But what does the study say itself? Is it good evidence that airborne mercury from coal-fueled power plants is an important contributor to the development of autism? I will argue no, because the study’s flaws are so innumerable that it is well nigh uninterpretable. For simplicity’s sake, to summarize its findings, I’ll quote a Science Daily press release about it:
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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